I often have ideas for a blog, something that I think might be interesting both for me to write and others to read, but as always, the children know best! They inspire me and at the moment, they are investigating risky play. They have been discovering different ways of using the A frame, whether that is climbing across or hanging upside down, they are learning all the ways their bodies move and what they can and cannot do. In our risk averse society, any type of risk or challenge, can be seen as something to avoid, something not to offer the children. Children think differently!! Risk aversion comes from the fear that risks are something negative and so must be avoided. Children think differently!
Risk itself is an unknown outcome and could be negative or positive. We take risks probably every day of our lives but we assess the potential benefits or the possible negative outcomes before we take any action - we are conducting our own internal risk assessment and this is crucial to succeed at life. Children need to develop such skills. Some adults are worried about children hurting themselves and so they tend to over protect them – the concern with that is, many adults who are afraid of children being hurt, simply remove equipment or objects rather than teach the children to use them safely.
Opportunities to play in and experience different environments are important. These allow children to experience a challenge. If a child does not attempt a new experience or challenge then they will not be ready to move on to their next stage of development, whatever that may be - for development to occur the child needs a stimulating environment as well as adult support. Making sure that children’s play opportunities are challenging prevents children from becoming bored and stimulates their development.
A few years ago, I was working with a group of children where one of them was desperate to have a try on a scooter, she was very small for her age but was determined to have a go. She would get herself on, we’d encourage her to try one of the smaller ones for safety reasons and then just gently guide her, holding on to her hands a little, so she felt she was doing as much of it as she could. She loved it! After a few months, she was able to do it on her own – imagine if we had stopped her straight away, said no, too dangerous. How would she have felt? Would she have kept trying? Given up?
Helen Bilton writes brilliantly about outdoor play and areas – she says “ without challenges and risks, children will find play areas uninteresting or use them in inappropriate ways, which become dangerous” (2005) Children without any challenge can often show unwanted behaviour and also fail to develop some important physical and cognitive skills, such as balance, awareness of height and judgement of speed.
I think it is important to state here that although we understand that risk and challenge is beneficial for children's well being, that does not mean that we become complacent about safety but that we fully understand the difference between a risk and a hazard and provide opportunities for safe, well managed risk taking. A hazard is something that can cause serious harm so removing hazards in our settings is essential for us to keep children safe. This does not mean that there will not be any more accidents and it is perfectly normal for children to graze their skin and bump their heads. I have often observed that children have an innate understanding of what feels safe to them and will, on the whole, adjust their play to keep themselves safe. However, we need to keep in mind that what may be a challenge for one child, may be a risk too far for another and so we need to be mindful of each child's individual needs.
Play, by its very nature, involves uncertainty, an element of unpredictability, creativity, and freedom, with a focus on the process rather than any end result. Risky play might be defined as play that provides opportunities for challenge, testing limits, exploring boundaries and learning about risk and how to manage that risk. That means the play must be child initiated as any experiences adults offer are often highly controlled and already risk assessed. Anna Ephgrave (2018) explains that child initiated play is “allowing children to select what to do. They will select what engages them, what interests them and what challenges them, because it is innate in a child to want to learn - to want to be deeply involved”.
Some practitioners can be nervous about allowing children the opportunity to engage in risky play. As Carol Dweck would encourage, it's all about the growth mindset. If your mind is convinced that any type of risk and challenge for children is too dangerous, you can change your mindset. “You have a choice. Mindsets are just beliefs. They're powerful beliefs, but they're just something in your mind and you can change your mind” (2017). If we are inhibiting children's opportunities to learn about negotiating their own risk in their everyday lives we will create a generation not able to negotiate challenges in the future. The attitude of practitioners is very important – if you are excited and enthusiastic about what is available outside, allowing the children to experience challenge through play, the children will be too.
Risky play supports children's emotional well being, resilience and mental health. A lack of opportunity to play outside may create even more of a dissonance between the children and the wonders of the natural world. Louv (2005) identifies an increasing anxiety in children's dissociation from the natural world which he terms as ‘nature deficit disorder’. This links to mental health and obesity issues in our children. In his wonderful book Can I Go and Play Now?, Greg Bottrill discusses this problem stating ‘We're talking unbridled risk taking, collaborative, expensive play, freely chosen explorations, ultimately a deep-for and primal connection to the soil, yes, the earth, the sky, to our vet stores. We were born to connect to nature, but all too often our children's outdoor educational experience remains limited and neutered.’ (2018
These days, many children do not play outside their homes and are often taken to Nursery or school by car. The tendency to wrap children in cotton wool has transformed how they experience childhood and many children have no real experience of assessing risk themselves and have limited opportunities to practice keeping themselves safe.
In their play, children enjoy trying to master a new skill, practicing it, add some variety to it and then add an extra challenge to it - this allows the children to test their own limits and start to discover what their bodies can and cannot do. As I mentioned at the beginning of the article, this is something the children I have been working with are developing. One of the ways for children to discover how to learn to manage risk and develop skills to keep them safe is through adventurous play. Froebel (1782-1852) was an advocate for allowing children to experience challenges in their play arguing that those who engage in increasing challenges are safer than those children who have been protected from them (Tovey 2013)
“... the boy whose training has always been connected with the gradual development of his capacities will attempt only a little more than he has already been able to do, and will come safely through all these dangers. It is the boy who does not know his strength and the demands made on it who is likely to venture beyond his experience and run into unsuspected danger.” (Froebel, in Lilley 1967)
We need to be focusing on the benefits of risk taking not on the possibility of accidents. As adults working with children, we need to have a positive attitude towards risk and challenge in play which may well be a challenge for us!!! If we see risky play as something to be relished rather than something to be fearful of we will be supporting children to develop their self confidence and encouraging them to give things a go in the knowledge that we are there to make sure that they are not being exposed to unnecessary dangers.
Bilton, H (2010) Outdoor Learning in the Early Years. Routledge. London.
Bottrill, G (2018) Can I Go & Play Now?
Ephgrave, A (2018) planning in the moment with young children. Routledge. London.
Dweck, C. (2017) ‘Mindset’’, Changing the way you think to fulfill your potential. Constable and Robinson Ltd.
Louv, R (2005) Last child in the woods: Saving our children from Nature - Deficit Disorder Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, North Carolina