The Value in Risky Play

There are broad and wide-reaching benefits for children’s health, development, mental health and wellbeing when they engage in risky play. 

Children are more physically active when outside playing with friends, and especially when they’re not feeling closely supervised.  They’re moving, responding, and initiating play in a dynamic interaction with friends and their environment. 

Risky play emerges in all children’s play whether they’re in the schoolyard or the forest! It offers the opportunity for children to assess their own safety and risk, as they respond to their environment. A fallen tree is an opportunity to climb, or build a shelter, and they’ll need to consider how to do that safely. They’ll learn about the land around them, what it offers, how they can experiment, how far they can push their own capabilities, and how to safely manage the risks they encounter. 

Children work through fears in risky play.  They practise coping with experiences that would otherwise elicit anxiety. Many children will climb a tree with hope, thrill, excitement and a bit of fear. They’ll climb less fearfully the next time. Children need to practice managing their emotions and the feeling of risk for real life situations. Risky play offers them this practice. 

On the land, risky play shows up in so many ways. It can sometimes be easily categorized and sometimes not. We know it’s risky play because it feels risky! It might be sliding down an icy hill, climbing up a rock pile, stepping out onto ice, throwing rocks into a pond, climbing a tree or balancing on a fallen log. It might be using a tool like a saw to cut a branch, or a knife to whittle a stick.

In risky play (and especially during tool use), we see relationships strengthen.  A conversation will happen between the child and the educator before a tool is handed over about the ways they will stay safe. The tool is offered to the child. Children will often look solemn and focused as they accept it;  sometimes they sit up a little taller. Many children look over to see if they’re “doing it right” as they’re using the tool. These moments of connection and trust displayed by both the educator and child bolsters confidence, strengthens communication and builds relationships. Perhaps most importantly it affirms for the child, “I am a person worthy of trust.” 

More detail on benefits of Risky Play can be found in greater detail in Chapter 4 Outdoor Risky Play by Mariana Brussoni. (Retrieved May 26 2021)

Reflective Sharing Prompt: Consider a moment of play in your experience when a child was engaging in play that felt uncertain and risky to you. Briefly describe the play, and answer these questions: What needs were they trying to meet? What were they learning during this play? How did you as an educator feel?