Play is the universal language of all children. There are many forms of play that a child can engage in. Some include constructive play, fantasy play, social play, physical play, and risky play. Risky play often encompasses many other forms of play, but it is often parents’ least favorite form of play that children can engage in.
This type of play includes engaging in behaviors that have a level of risk associated with it. This can include heights, dangerous “tools,” speed, and touch and tumble. While risky play is stressful for parents, it is necessary for children!
What is risky play?
It should be understood that there is a HUGE difference between risky play and hazardous play. Risky play has some form of danger, or risk, associated with the play. This might be playing with a stick or jumping over a small creek. There is a small chance that they could slip on the creek bed and scrape their knee. In contrast, hazardous play is when the probability of getting injured is inevitable. For example, if there is broken glass on the slide, the child cannot safely utilize the slide without injury.
What do kids learn from it?
Risky play allows children to engage in activities or behaviors without knowing the guaranteed outcomes. Children are essentially testing their boundaries to find out what they are comfortable with. It encourages children to find out more about their world, their bodies’ capabilities, and the limits they can reach.
Each child has a different boundary of what risky play looks like for them. If you have multiple children, this kind of play will look different for each child. But if a child doesn’t feel comfortable participating in risky play, a parent should not force them to take risks.
Risky play also helps a child develop risk-management skills. These skills are considered a portion of the necessary executive functioning skills, which are needed throughout life. In addition, engaging in risky play allows the children to assess the situation and build their mental and physical abilities.
Risky play also helps increase self-esteem and confidence in the child. It often includes the child engaging in behaviors where they haven’t completed the task before. Or there is a possibility they could get injured but after they complete the task. It also allows children to learn and cope with fear-inducing situations. Everyone goes through life facing stressful, fearful situations. Engaging in risky play can help build the foundation of handling those emotions and accomplish a task that seems intimidating.
Tips for When Your Child is Engaging in Risky Play
Utilize the 17-second rule.
Mariana Brussoni is a professor at The University of British Columbia and has spent years researching risky play (and play in general) and suggests the 17-second rule. As parents, we want to step in and help limit the possibility of our children getting hurt.
While the possibility of the child engaging in risky play and becoming seriously injured is slim, it can still be stressful for parents. The 17-second rule has parents wait 17 seconds before stepping into the situation. It gives children enough time to assess the entire situation and allows the child to build their understanding of their own capability. After 17 seconds, the parents can intervene and help guide the child through the decision-making process. Asking questions like, “Are you feeling safe? Tell me your plan to get down” helps everyone feel more comfortable in the situation.
Be present and engage with your child while they are playing.
Being present helps the child feel more confident in taking risks. It also helps the parents feel more comforted. Saying things like, “You are going so fast. I am so proud!” Or “I see you taking very careful steps on those rocks. Great work!” This engagement helps the parents, and the child, feel more comfortable with risky play!
Allow your children to fall.
Strange thing for someone to say, huh? When your child falls, it allows them to gain a better understanding of their body’s abilities. Your child is bound to fall while growing. If they fall while engaging in risky play, do not panic! Allow them to regroup themselves (helping build those executive functioning skills!!) and then ask them if they are okay. This is often the opposite of what we want to do as parents. But it is necessary for a child to fall and get back up by themselves.
Risky play, which is scary for parents, is one of my favorite things to watch as a teacher. It builds confidence, self-esteem, and long-term executive functioning skills. Engaging in risky play is critical for child development. The probability of injury is often slim. But it is always encouraged that this type of play be supervised, which allows the parents (or teachers) to intervene if it becomes hazardous.