filter image

Why Risk Benefit Play is Worth the Risk

Ironically, intuition serves an innate biological function to warn us of danger that, if ignored, we often regret afterwards.

Written by: Early Educational Advisor - Jo Harris  

Ironically, the relatively new term 'Risky Play' earned its name long ago through the 'dangerous' recreational activities children used to indulge in frequently.

Climbing trees, handling tools and exploring local neighbourhoods was common practice for children up until recently when a lot has disappeared with the introduction of technology.  Also, as our society has become more risk averse, there is prevailing anxiety about the long-term consequences and potential outcomes that is unlikely but can occur, including personal injury and liability.

When we remove all risk, however, a new danger emerges. Play can become too sanitised, safe and sedentary, affecting children's wellbeing and independence.

Past learnings combined with the rise in anxiety in a post-COVID world have resulted in Educators tuning in to what children both want and need. The goal should be to strike a balance that includes risky play elements and activities that challenge the mind. With careful consideration and planning, educators and families can introduce activities that can provide this at little or no cost but have a priceless value.

 The Power of Intuition and the Information it provides

Intuition is a skill that is difficult to measure, as it is not the only indicator of what lies ahead when approaching a new situation. Ironically, intuition serves an innate biological function to warn us of danger that, if ignored, we often regret afterward.

To know we are protected from harm can encourage us to leap baby steps to complete the consolidation of a skill or talent. However, the feeling soon shifts from confident to fearful if there are constant reminders of the possible 'red flags', inhibiting our potential.

Similarly, if we don't place trust in children and their ability to explore and learn, it can have the opposite effect than what we intended.

While it is essential to think about safety first (especially when it comes to the care and well-being of children), we must ensure that there are still opportunities for children to take calculated risks within a bubble of freedom.


We Must Take Care Not To Impose Our Fears upon Children 

When in the company of young children, it naturally reminds us of our early experiences. 

We may remember the heartache of disappointment, the gravity of fear we felt, or the physical pain incurred through an accident or injury. We may even carry a physical or emotional scar from those events.

There is a more significant opportunity to create real-time experiences and memories in the present, which encourages trust and respect within the development of children's emerging sense of agency.

It is a right of passage to pass on wisdom from one generation to the next, but it is also possible to clear emotional space for children to explore safely. When we support them to do so, it instills one of the most important dispositions a child can have - self-belief.   

 The importance of self-regulation and its link to risk

An action must be taken for learning to occur in young children. When learning to move from crawling to walking, they must overcome many risk elements to meet this milestone and the many more that come afterward.

When thinking about a child's joy and satisfaction of mastering this one skill, it becomes clear why it is so important to take the risk and succeed at this stage of physical development and its resulting significance to emotional development.

Within hundreds of repetitive attempts at increasing mobility during their early years, mastery by its very nature invites more risk.




 Risky Play is not a 'category' – it's what children do instinctively

As children grow and develop, the types of Play they are interested in change. Children naturally seek out what is new and novel as their world expands beyond their home base.

Through his research, professional Play Worker and Researcher Marc Armitage implores us to understand that risk is intrinsic to successful development. He proposes that 'all children have an innate desire to touch things, an 'evolutionary driver' essential for survival.

In a recent article, Armitage identified the risky play activities that enhance children's play, including experiencing height, depth, movement, speed, and building and using tools - with development and understanding rooted within the processes followed between 'known' and 'unknown'.

With this knowledge at the forefront, it may help educators turn their focus upon what children want to feel as their measure of knowing what life has to offer. When participating in Risky Play, emotions can run free such as those of exhilaration, excitement, enthusiasm, and euphoria - leading to a greater sense of personal connection and wellbeing.

 A Good Plan is like a Road Map

Risk is a common component of our lives, but with a plan, it becomes much easier to navigate. Before undertaking a significant change or implementing an element of change in a program, you must know what you want to achieve.

Educators and families can determine the best course of action by discussing potential scenarios or concerns. Completing a risk assessment that includes detailed information and understanding the boundaries and limitations relating to a given activity will provide the steps and strategies needed to inspire confidence for all involved.

Researching any ideas you wish to implement and sharing the information with the broader community will help to build knowledge and security - which is essential for children to feel trusted and supported in their play and learning.

Throughout decades of interviewing children during their play activities, Marc Armitage concluded that 'what they (children) want and most need is 'multiple opportunities for challenge...' and that the 'greatest barrier to risky play is the unwillingness of us adults to take risks ourselves…'

Ultimately when focus is directed towards the joy of discovery for children during play,  it can help to instill an intrinsic sense of satisfaction and pride which will govern their attitude towards becoming lifelong learners.

Just as Art Play is now seen as a process rather than a product-driven activity, the importance of Risk-Benefit Play happens when we chart the course of children's thinking and development along the way.  Experiential learning provides meaning and context when children are encouraged to participate collaboratively, equally guided by words and actions.

For more ideas and information about adding Risk Benefit Play to your program, please visit our Educator Resources page


Related Articles

  • filter image

    Nurturing and Building Relationships with Natural Playspaces

    Learning about relationships can be simplified by focusing on the ever-changing cycles of the natural world. These can provide a metaphor for the importance of this within our human relationships.
    Read more
  • filter image

    Three R’s of Sustainability: Reduce, reuse, and recycle

    Teaching children about the environment and understanding how it works is an opportunity to also teach them about sustainability.
    Read more