The Unspoken Words of Risky Play

By July 20, 2021Uncategorized

By Rebecca Seiling


The language we use is important. Helpful tools, like this CNAC infographic, help us as facilitators to check the way we’re talking about risk — tweaking and changing our vocabulary so that we’re responding with prompts that are more nuanced than “be careful.”

But what about the inner thought life of the risky play facilitator? What are the unspoken words going on inside of us as we observe and lead children through play experiences in the land? What about the thoughts of the child during play?

Here are a sampling of thoughts I’ve experienced as I watch a child climb a tree. Can you relate?

A boy climbing a tree that has fallen over

“Should I stop this?
This is a strong tree, alive and well, and will support their weight.
How high is too high?
Is there a “too high”?
When and for whom and why?
I can spot and break a fall, up until a certain point.
Oh… ok, that’s high now.
My stomach is starting to feel a bit queasy.
Maybe that’s high enough… I’m still getting to know this child.”


And here are some thoughts I’ve had when children have chosen to play together in a rough and tumble way:

“Are they all still enjoying this play?
They’re loud and there is a lot of laughter.
Why do they want to use sticks as guns? That’s not how I was taught to play as a child.
Why do they want to play like this?
Should I ask them what power their guns have?
Don’t they know that guns kill people?
They are using the fort as a base, and making two groups. Everyone is included, and there is a hierarchy established: a manager, an assistant manager, a look-out guard, an attacker.
Am I projecting my discomfort onto this group?
Is it ok for me to be uncomfortable with this type of play?
How much longer until the end of this free play time?
Should I ask them if they want to play in the creek instead?
Her cheeks look red… Is she angry, or just exerting energy and still loving this type of play? Maybe she’s just hot. Maybe she’s trying to keep up with her big brother.
Are they ok with being bossed around by the main manager? This would bug me. Is it bugging them?
Why is he so bossy?
When do I step in? When does play become an actual conflict that could use my help?
Do I trust them to work through their own conflicts, even during loud and rough play like this?
Is this one of those times I need to count to 17 to see what happens next?
How can I trust, and not direct, but keenly observe the process?
Maybe I will videotape some of the action so that I can look back on it later.
I will check in with each one to make sure they’re all still consenting to this play.”


Is “rough and tumble play” a type of risky play that you’re comfortable with? If so, what are your unspoken words as you observe kids in action? If not, what does your unspoken word dialogue sound like?

Our thoughts can lead us to certain feelings, and then to particular behaviours and spoken words. So I think it’s important for me as the facilitator to get really clear on my thoughts around various forms of risky play — thoughts that are occurring right in the moment of dynamic play that is not scripted. How could I make the implicit more explicit? How do I know which thoughts to heed, and then take action, and which thoughts are stemming from my own fears? How could I monitor these thoughts more consciously?

  • I could record my thoughts in a journal or in audio format on my phone, or I could take more intentional notice of them as they’re running through my mind as I observe children at play.
  • I value working alongside other educators, and it’s important for me to also check my thoughts with them. Did they observe the same play as I did? What were their thoughts compared to mine? How can we support each other?

Alongside the unspoken words of the facilitator, there are inner dialogues whispering and perhaps even shouting in the minds of our learners. What thoughts are circulating in children’s minds as they engage in risky play?

Caroline Leppanen, currently in the Oro-Medonte Forest and Nature School Practitioners Course, created a painting that illustrates this risky play inner dialogue, highlighting thought bubbles that contain unspoken words of our learners. She titled the work “Risky Play: A Cognitive Space.”

“Risky Play: A Cognitive Space” by Caroline Leppanen

It’s striking that our spoken words as educators, like the ones highlighted in CNAC infographic about words to say instead of “be careful” can become the unspoken words circling around the minds of our learners. What we say matters! And the way we navigate our thought life matters too, because these thoughts can become our words.

To complement this artwork, Caroline wrote:

“I keep coming back to Dr. Mariana Brussoni’s brilliance and the idea that the outdoors invite so much opportunity for action, exploration, volume, decision-making… and yes, wildness. What have I created? My own wee cheat sheet, to remind myself to help our young humans to see themselves as the ones in charge, the deciders, who manage challenges.”

Caroline beautifully illustrates the joy and exuberance of play. The levels of intervention that she includes in the centre of the picture are:

  • Open attention
  • Focused attention
  • Active intervention

Haim Omer (2011) wrote about these three levels or models of vigilant care. These ideas have been adapted into infographics, like “Be a Lifeguard Parent” from Active for Life, and page 62 of the Risk Benefit Assessment for Outdoor Play: A Canadian Toolkit (2019). These three levels of intervention can also guide our unspoken words as we observe risky play.

At the bottom of her painting, Caroline expresses a wish:

“Don’t contribute to creating fearful, anxious humans.”

Curating our thought lives as educators will impact the thoughts, spoken words, and behaviours of the children we lead. In the end, hopefully this will help our learners develop skills in assessing and mitigating risk that will benefit them in many areas of their lives to come.