20 May, 2022




Eleanor Roosevelt suggested we should all take one risk per day that scares us. For parents and educators instinctively this advice is the opposite of what we feel we should do as carers for our children. We both want to protect them from harm, however Eleanor raises a crucial aspect of development. Giving them the freedom to explore new challenges and experiences. It is important we support them to venture into territory and experiences that are not 100% safe. This is how they learn a myriad of ways they can protect themselves in the wider world.

This is called Risky Play, and is an important aspect of how we teach them to look after themselves when we are not around.

Risky play is a term I have frequently heard our Early Learning educators discuss and the need to create experiences which have evolved from a much needed trend to get more children out into nature to experience challenging environments or situations that require a challenge, some decision making and problem solving.

There are many benefits that derive from children’s engagement in risky play as they discover lessons for life which they unconsciously learn. Driven by curiosity and a need for excitement they learn what is safe and what is not. Having a sensible focus on safety and preventing child injuries are important but the question is how much should we restrict children’s play in doing so? Placing too many restrictions can result in a lack of physical challenges for children and many recent research explorations (Adams, 2001; Apter, 2007; Ball, 2002; Boyesen, 1997; Gill, 2007) believe the focus on safety has a negative effect on children’s risk management competence and important developmental benefits.

Sandseter (2006) conducted a research study of Norwegian preschools which identified six categories of risky play we need to help our children master:

·         play at great heights, where children climb trees or high structures such as climbing frames in a playground
·         play at high speed, such as riding a bike or skateboarding down a steep hill or swinging fast
·         play with harmful tools, like knives or highly supervised power tools to create woodwork
·         play with dangerous elements, such as fire or bodies of water
·         rough and tumble play, where children wrestle or play with impact, such as slamming bodies into large crash mats
·         play where you can disappear, where children can feel they’re not being watched by doing things like enclosing themselves in cubbies built of sheets or hiding in bushes.

There are many of these aspects we at the College can help children experience through their school activities in Outdoor Education opportunities and general class activities however these are aspects you can help your children learn how to navigate safely at home. Children develop the ability to assess risk by taking age or ability appropriate risks. There are numerous additional benefits from promoting the development of these abilities such as more developed motor skills, stronger social behaviours, independence and sense of self together with developed conflict resolution abilities with their peers. Opportunities for risk has also shown to decrease mental health concerns for young children such as anxiety and fears.

By having real conversations with children about an activity, not just giving them instructions, will help them plan how to take the risk safely e.g. telling a child to be careful doesn’t tell them what to do. Instead try saying something like: “That knife is sharp, you could cut yourself. Try holding it only by the handle and cut downwards slowly onto the board” or highlighting for them what could happen if they proceed to cut something unsafely or towards themselves.

It is also helpful to introduce risk gradually and in increasing levels of difficulty. The use and competence of fire is an important skill all children should learn and master. Try starting with candles together at the dinner table, encouraging them to help you light an open fire and explain each process to them. Eventually they will be able to set and light a fire themselves.

We, as their guides, need to remember all our children are competent and deserve the opportunity to have a sense of autonomy. They need opportunities to feel as if they are alone, that we trust them to play and make their own safe choices. We can be close by, but they all need time to develop their sense of self.

They also absorb a lot from how we, as their adults react to situations. If we panic and catastrophise events, there is a chance they will project these feelings of anxiety when presented with uncertain times that require their own risk calculation and risk management skills to come to the fore. This is one of the ways we can help them to learn from mistakes and be bold. As Mark Zuckerberg stated “The biggest risk is not taking any risk… In a world that changing really quickly, the only strategy that is guaranteed to fail is not taking risks.”

Fiona Auton
Deputy Head of Junior School