The Importance of Risky Play in Early Childhood

Are you hovering?

Be honest: how many times in the average playground visit do you find yourself tensing up with anxiety over the possibility of your kid getting hurt? How many times do you say something along the lines of, "be careful," "that's dangerous," or "don't do that"? If you're like the vast majority of loving, attentive, well-intentioned parents, that number is likely pretty darn high.

While we can all agree that nobody wants their child to get hurt, there are a few drawbacks to being overly protective in this scenario:

  • Hovering over your child and waiting for the next dangerous scenario to arise is exhausting for parents, and can make us dread playground outings and other play experiences that are important to our children's development.
  • Children can sense when we are anxious around them. When they inevitably pick up on our tension, they may start to feel anxious or irritable themselves, which is not the way we want our children to feel while they play.
  • Constantly stopping children from taking age-appropriate, reasonable risks or insisting on "rescuing" them from play-related struggles sends our kids the message that we do not trust them, they are not capable, and we can and will fix everything for them.

Climbing, running, jumping, and tumbling are all crucial to a child's gross motor development.
Climbing, running, jumping, and tumbling are all crucial to a child's gross motor development. | Source

Why is risky play important?

Think about the last time you were challenged by something. Maybe it was a marathon that took months of grueling training. Maybe it was a rigorous job interview. Whatever the challenge was, think about what it felt like to be in the midst of that struggle. You may have had thoughts like, "I can't do this" or "I should just give up."

But you didn't.

Now recall how good it felt to overcome that challenge all on your own, despite your own doubts and fears. How did you feel afterwards? Chances are you felt capable, confident, proud, invigorated, and invincible.

This is the feeling that we deprive our children of when we see them attempting to climb a particularly tall tree and run over in a panic to demand that they get down, or physically "rescue" them ourselves. Imagine if, while in the midst of your challenge that you brought to mind earlier, someone in a higher position of power came along and told you, "Stop trying to do this. It's too hard, and you might hurt yourself. Do something safer."

Now, imagine again that you are struggling with your challenge and someone comes along and says, "I see you getting frustrated/scared/nervous. It can be hard to try new things. I'll be here if you need help."

What a relief! Having someone nearby to empathize with your struggle while gently encouraging you along and not pushing their help on you is the best! This is exactly what our children want and need from us while they take risks in their play.

When we act as a confident cheerleader and offer our help without being pushy, children receive the message that:

  • My parents trust me
  • My parents will stand by me with unwavering support and gentle guidance while I try new things
  • Challenging myself is ultimately rewarding
  • I can achieve things and overcome obstacles if I try hard and don't give up.

These messages may be rooted in play, but your child will carry them well into adulthood. The way you react to your child facing age-appropriate obstacles today will affect your relationship forever.

Taking age-appropriate risks helps children feel confident and capable.
Taking age-appropriate risks helps children feel confident and capable. | Source

What risky play is not

  • Letting children do whatever they want without supervision.
  • Letting children put themselves or others at risk of serious physical harm.
  • Not stepping in when a child is doing something dangerous.
  • Encouraging children to do things that are blatantly dangerous, or that we know they are too young to do safely.
  • Being too physically far from our children to help them if needed.
  • Ignoring children altogether while they play.

What risky play is (from a parent's perspective)

  • Closely supervising and observing our children so that we are aware of their physical abilities and play choices.
  • Being physically close enough to step in at a moment's notice if our child falls or is suddenly in danger of being seriously harmed.
  • Using our own judgement to assess the "risk versus reward" of what our child is doing. (More on assessing risk vs reward later).
  • Being conscious of our own anxiety and making an effort not to transfer that to our child.
  • When feeling the urge to stop our child from doing something, asking ourselves honestly, "why don't I want her doing this?" If the answer is anything other than, "there's a good chance that she or another person will get seriously hurt", bite your tongue and just observe.
  • Offering help when necessary, but erring on the side of simply empathizing with our child's struggle.
  • Rather than physically intervening when a child is struggling, offering suggestions. "Try holding onto that next branch and pulling yourself up!"
  • Acknowledging the challenge and celebrating our child's success. "You worked so hard to climb that tree! It was really difficult at times, but you made it to the top!"

What risky play is (from a child's perpective)

  • Practicing my balance as I carefully hop from one rock to another.
  • Using my left brain and my right brain in tandem as I climb the rope ladder at the playground.
  • Working on my planning skills as I figure out how to scale a tree.
  • Learning what it feels like to be a little nervous but try something anyway (i.e., bravery!)
  • Learning that I will sometimes fall and get hurt, and it's usually no big deal.
  • Developing my sure-footedness and physical coordination.
  • Feeling like I can do anything, even if it's a little daunting at first.
  • Seeing my parents model an attitude of helpful encouragement and genuine empathy, traits which I will carry with me into my interactions with others.

Being trusted to take risks instills courage!
Being trusted to take risks instills courage! | Source

Assessing risk versus reward

You're probably thinking, "great, I'm on board with risky play. I want my kid to feel confident in his abilities, and I'm ready to take a step back and not be so quick to stop him from taking risks. But how do I know when to step back and when to step in?"

It's a fair question. Where is the line between allowing freedom of movement and play choices, and gross negligence?

The key is to use your own judgement to assess the risk versus reward of the activity your child is choosing. It's pretty self-explanatory: take a look at what the risk to your child is in the worst case scenario. Could they get a minor injury, like a bruise or a scraped knee? Could they just be slightly uncomfortable for a moment? Could they get dirty? Next, assess what the reward for your child would be. Would they conquer that longtime fear of the slide at the local playground? Would they bond with a playmate over a shared exciting experience? Would they learn that a skinned elbow isn't the end of the world?

Obviously, your child's own level of development is a huge factor. Maybe you have a super-coordinated two-year-old who can totally handle the rope ladder. Maybe your six-year-old just doesn't have the upper body strength to do the monkey bars yet. Observe your child at play frequently to learn what they can do.

Your assessment of risk versus reward is entirely dependent upon your child's age, physical abilities, and your own comfort. If something your child is doing makes you uncomfortable, don't be afraid to go with your gut and simply say to them, "hey, I'm worried you might get hurt doing that. Let's choose something else."

On the flip side, though, don't be afraid to say, "yes, you might get a scrape from doing that, but if you're okay with that, go ahead and try."

To sum it up: trust is key

The main thread running through the topic of risky play is one simple word: trust.

Take a moment to reflect on how it feels to feel trusted versus feeling mistrusted. One instills confidence, the other breeds insecurity. Of course, as adults, it's our job to make the final call as to whether something is safe and permissible for our child. But part of being an effective parent is frequent self-reflection and reassessment of our parenting practices. Ask yourself often, "am I telling my child 'no' because there is a real risk of harm here? Or am I telling her 'no' because of my own baggage?"

Trust begins with letting go of that familiar desire to control our child's choices. When we can let go of that urge early on, our relationship with our children can be built on a foundation of communication and mutual respect, rather than one of fear, anxiety, and control. Show your children early on that you have confidence in them and you both will reap the benefits for years to come.

Check out this fearless little girl working on her coordination. Notice how mom doesn't panic even when the baby experiences a minor fall.

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