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What is 'Risky Play' & Why Does It Matter for Kids?

March 13, 2015 |

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What is 'Risky Play' & Why Does It Matter for Kids?

Parents, teachers, and caregivers share the common goal to inspire young children while protecting them from injury. In fact the bulk of supervision for children ages 2-12 years-old involves steering them clear of situations that might present injury, or so it seems. Every child has an innate curiosity about the world around them, which can sometimes have unfortunate consequences.

In this quest to keep kids safe, many child behavior experts are evaluating if our children are “too safe,” or overly protected in a way that inhibits their natural way of learning. As a child you may remember getting a bruise from falling out of a tree, or a scrape while learning how to use your skateboard for the first time. Parents today can be overly protective to the detriment of the natural cognitive and experiential development of their children.

When you hear the term “Risky Play” in the context of children, there is no doubt that parents and caregivers would be concerned. But the element of risk is actually crucial to learning for children, and we’ll explain how.


The Definition of Risky Play

Did you know that children as young as six months of age can engage in problem solving and personal risk assessment? Toddlers have been observed avoiding things like proceeding off an unsafe edge, and steering away from possible injury. That is not to imply that children do not require supervision, but simply that there is a natural, built-in perception that they possess to help guide them away from potential harm. A very primal sense that continues to develop as they grow.

However, in an over protected environment how would this skill become honed if it were never exercised? And what kind of adults are we raising if we do not allow children to place themselves within a reasonable peril and apply their problem solving skills?

Risky play is an opportunity to allow children enough “free play” time and appropriate activities to explore their own problem solving abilities, demonstrate risk assessment skills, and to learn from virtually harmless “cause and effect” experiences that may result in a bruise or two—lessons that last well into adulthood. They must be given the ability to test their limitations, on playground equipment for instance, without having caregivers asking them to stop for hypersensitive fears of injury.


Why Does ‘Risky Play’ Matter?

The prevalence of over protected play is very apparent at your local park. How many kids do you see climbing a tree? That activity was once a rite of childhood passage for most kids and is now predominantly outlawed by over protective supervisors.  This is just one of many examples of how childhood has become a protected, insular environment rather than a healthy, exploratory one.

The US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health published an article called “Risky Play and Children’s Safety: Balancing Priorities for Optimal Child Development.” The research study discusses the importance of injury prevention, but revealed a number of emerging research reports which suggested that “imposing too many restrictions on children’s outdoor risky play may be hampering their development.”

Other studies revealed that a risk deprived child was more prone to problems including obesity, mental health imbalance, lack of confidence and independence, and a decrease in learning, perception, and decision making skills.


Balancing Safety with Appropriate Risk Elements

The role of the modern playground has never been more important. Play structures are scientifically engineered to optimize physical and cognitive learning, and to promote discovery, while minimizing the risk of serious injury. Consequently, recent regulations for public playgrounds in the United States also require a certified playground surfacing to absorb impact, and further prevent injuries from slipping or falling off structures.

Notice that these implements have not entirely removed potential for injury, but mitigated the risk of serious injury should falls occur. There must be an amount of risk during play in order to allow children to learn consequences of certain behaviors, but also reward them for surmounting the risks taken. That reward is fun and excitement.

It’s important for parents and caregivers to recognize that there are safe environments that children should be given permission to explore, and without excessive over-supervision. It is important to supervise children’s play activities but establish certain behavioral norms, and assess each child independently for their skills and abilities.

Providing guidance and safety training can further enhance the reasoning that children rely on when making judgments on activities to reduce injury, but assuming that all children should be devoid of the small scrapes or bruises that come with simply being a kid denies them a healthy start to their lives. To create healthy future adults, parents and caregivers need to adequately supervise (not overly-supervise) activities and allow kids to be kids.

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