Risk vs. Reward: Risky Play for Children

Risky play is such a buzzword in the parenting/ academic world right now. It’s the idea that kids play in a way that has an added level of risk- they climb trees and ride bikes down big hills and give their bodies the opportunity to fail or falter, in order to learn how to change their course of action to find success eventually. 

Think of walking on a balance beam that’s positioned a few inches off of the floor. A 2-year-old may be fairly proficient at walking and running, but asking them to walk on a balance beam for the first time is a harder task for them, they have to concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other in order to move forward. 

It’s inevitable that they will walk wobbly or maybe even fall off entirely. This is adding a layer of risk into play. 

Safe to them would be walking slowly on a flat, even surface. 

Risky would be attempting a balance beam a few inches off the floor. 

Dangerous would be attempting the same balance beam independently, but a few feet off of the floor instead of a few inches. 

Again, this is all for a two-year-old with no prior practice on a balance beam. The level of safe, risky, and dangerous play for any given child at any given age is constantly changing and evolving based on their experience level. 

What is the why behind risky play? Because it is one of the best things you can do for a child’s development. The list of skills that are developed during risky play is as follows, but is not limited to: 

Problem-solving skills
Cause and effect
Executive functioning skills
Brainstorming capabilities
Language development
Risk assessment
Life skills

Yes, you can get all of this and more by allowing your child to engage in risky play! It’s a no-brainer. 

But I know there are concerns surrounding risky play because I have those same concerns. When does risky play become dangerous play? How do you allow risky play while also avoiding trips to the emergency room with broken bones? It’s a delicate balance and with most things in life, becomes easier with time and practice. 

Your role as the caregiver or responsible adult over any number of kids is to determine where the line between risky and dangerous is… not for yourself. But for the child. 

Things to consider when supervising risky play:

-The overall situation. Are there any sharp objects, heavy furniture, or other dangerous factors that need to be avoided, pointed out, or considered? 

-The age, ability, and skill level of the child or children playing. 

-How much supervision you can allot to the risky play? Some risky play needs more supervision than others, and if your attention is divided too much at the moment for the child to engage in a certain activity that needs closer supervision, it’s okay to say no. 

Time and experience are on your side with all of these. Utilize it. It gets easier over time to analyze risky vs dangerous play. There is so much more to be said about risky vs dangerous play and even the language we should be using when supervising risky play. But those will be saved for another day! 

Until then, let the kids climb the apple trees and ride their bikes around the block. Take a breath (and probably a step back) the next time you see them scaling the rock climbing wall on the playground or turning the curb into a balance beam. Learning is happening. 

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