The Safety of Risky Play
Curious about the safety of risky play? We outline the benefits, and how to support it while keeping your little one safe.
As a parent, one of your main concerns is keeping your little one safe. Contrary to what you may have previously heard, the concept of risky play has now rewritten the parenting books, promoting independent and high-risk activities to maximize childhood development. Researchers are aligned – this is one of the most beneficial behaviours that parents can support. But how can you support risky play while keeping your child safe?
Here, we outline how you can utilize risky play without compromising safety.
What is risky play?
Risky play is a concept initially developed by a Norwegian researcher, Ellen Sandseter, celebrating thrilling and exciting play where children can engage in risk. Drawing from six key elements, risky play promotes independence and resiliency through “playing at great heights, with dangerous tools, near dangerous elements, with rough and tumble, having the opportunity to get lost/disappear.”
This concept is so powerful that the Canadian research community has issued a formal position statement supporting risky play. This statement underscores the importance of “access to active play in nature and outdoors – with its risks – is essential for healthy child development, and that opportunities for self-directed play outdoors should be increased in all settings.”
What are the benefits?
Children today are decidedly less active than ever before. A 2016 study found that children spend, on average, 7.5 hours of the day sedentary; less than 9% of children aged 5-17 meet benchmark levels of physical activity. A reliance on screens and devices has left children far less mobile than previous generations – their grandparents may have walked miles a day, while today’s youth are confined to rigid play spaces and restrictive rules.
Risky play allows children to push themselves, experimenting with the unknown as they interact. It is this thrill of experimentation that keeps children engaged rather than bored or scared of uncertainty. Children begin to understand how the world works, fostering high-functioning abilities and risk management skills. Independent risky play also encourages children to find and set boundaries while adapting to fear.
While risky play may seem like the antithesis of safe, researchers have found profound benefits in allowing children to experience risk independently. Risky play allows for the natural development of confidence and decision-making while allowing a child to express self-determination and creativity.
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How to support risky play while still being safe
If the idea of risky play seems ambiguous, then you are on the right track. It’s intentionally unstructured, designed for children to do what they please – a potentially confusing concept for parents to embrace. Parents can successfully support risky play by first assessing the risk and then giving their child room to explore. The activities that once seemed normal before technology and screens dominated childhood are hallmarks of risky play. While it looks different in every scenario, risky play may include climbing trees, building forts, exploring nature, jumping on rocks, or making mud pies.
Parents can’t facilitate risky play, but they can support it. Ask questions that allow children to stop and consider their actions, such as:
Where is your next move?
How can you build that?
What is your plan for safety?
Steer kids away from serious risk, but give them room to explore freely; these questions can prompt them to take their creative thinking a step further.
Risky play researcher, Dr. Mariana Brussoni, encourages parents to focus on play that is as safe as necessary, rather than safe as possible. This means allowing certain risks that don’t immediately pose a danger to your child, which allows for more latitudes in play. She recommends providing guidance but allowing children to figure things out independently, no matter how fearful a parent may be. If a situation looks truly frightening, Brussoni offers the 17-second rule: when things look dangerous or risky, hold your tongue for 17-seconds, and see how your child does on their own. Chances are, they will self regulate before real danger takes hold. Being nearby and keeping a close eye on your child at all times will ensure they can explore freely, without seriously risking their safety.
Risky play is a great way to help facilitate your child’s development, and can be done safely. Keeping an eye on your child and observing how they react to situations is the perfect way to help them build the skills they need to assess their own risks and safety in the future, when you’re not always there to watch their back.