I could go on all day about the benefits of risky play for young children-- but is it really beneficial for all children? The short answer is yes… if we honor and respect each child’s needs, experiences, and identity.
What do we mean by Risky Play?
Ellen Beate Hansen Sandseter, a Norwegian Professor of Physical Education and Health within Early Childhood Research, offers this definition: “Risky play is when the child’s skills exceed the challenges provided by the available equipment.” She goes on to list different types of risk taking, including:
Playing with height.
Playing with high speed.
Playing with tools.
Playing near dangerous elements
Play where the child can ‘disappear’ or get lost.
I also like to add social-emotional risks (play that may invoke some fear or anxiety) and sensory risks (play with objects that may overstimulate the senses).
I believe that inviting children to regularly experience risky outdoor play (like climbing in trees, rolling fast down the sidewalk, climbing up the slide, running with sticks, touching slimy worms) is an act of resistance against a system of oppression that deprioritizes play (and therefore healthy child development). But risks are riskier for different groups.
Building an equitable practice in early childhood programs means that we get to know each child and family at their core. It also means that we challenge systems that create inequities and trauma in the first place. So, we need to get to know each child's/family’s relationship with risky play and understand the systems at play that prevent access to appropriate risk taking.
A recent Instagram post by @puddleparenting offers good food for thought around this. They posted:
We can reframe this for early childhood education settings as:
If a child injures themselves, a trip to the doctor will not be a financial burden for the child’s family.
I can let children engage in risky play without being seen as a negligent educator.
The families I serve have easy access to laundry, or we launder their clothes for them.
I am able-bodied and can step in quickly to help a child if needed.
I may feel anxious watching children in risky play, but it’s not overwhelming.
The children are physically and mentally able to participate in risky play.
For some of us, it can be paralyzing to realize that we may be placing undue burden on families through risky play. We may say, “I can’t do outdoor play stuff anymore, it’s not fair to my families.” But, if we approach it this way, we will be robbing children of essential developmental activities, opportunities to break down generational trauma and historical marginalization, and, well, fun! So, how do we say “yes” while making risky play inclusive and accessible for children and families for whom we may answer “no” to those bullet points above?
Inclusive risky play is transparent.
Programs must be transparent that they plan to do risky play. Create a risk waiver that is specific to the risky activities that you plan to do and offer it to families before they enroll. Offer the chance for families to discuss it with you if they have any concerns. Acknowledge their fears, work to educate them on how you approach risks intentionally (I’ll write more on developing comprehensive risk management practices later), and develop individual plans for each family. Really listen and adapt your practice.
Be proactive about the barriers to risky play. Develop a resource library for families that connects them with free healthcare, therapy services, discounted clothing, etc. to help meet their needs head on. What if we offered laundering? Or, hosed down their rain gear at the end of glass? What if we provided rain suits?
A lot of the work that we need to do when it comes to risky play involves education because there are a lot of fears around outdoor risky play that aren’t actually supported by research. In fact, programs that engage in outdoor risky play have the same amount of injury and illness rates as indoor programs who do not. So, listen to families while also providing them (gently) with information and evidence that supports why it's important to do risky play.
Transparency on a day-to-day basis is also important. For me, as an educator who lives with chronic pain that shifts my physical ability from day to day, it is always important for me to be transparent with my co-teachers about what I am able to do and not able to do on any given day. This means that on a day when we planned to do some heavy log rolling opportunities where I might need to catch a too-fast-moving log, and I woke up with a high pain level, we might shift how we do that activity (another educator will supervise it, for example) or save it for another day!
Inclusive risky play means that risky play looks different for each child.
For example, let’s say we are in an area that offers a nice, sturdy tree for climbing. Risky play for one child might look like climbing to maximum height quickly (established by your risk management policies and teacher experience), with guidance from an adult. Another child’s big risk may be simply touching and feeling the rough bark, which has felt overwhelming in the past due to sensory sensitivity. Another risk might be jumping down from a short branch, or having an adult lift you to smell the leaves (I don’t believe in lifting children into trees to climb, but children who may need assistance with mobility or muscle strength deserve a high vantage point, too!)
“Keep in mind that all children benefit when they engage in risky play including children with disabilities. They may need closer supervision, physical support or encouraging words but they do not benefit from over protection and should not miss out on the opportunity to feel strong, proud and exhilarated by risky play.” The Seattle Children’s Playgarden
Inclusive risky play is social.
One of the biggest risks young children take, especially if preschool is their first time in school, is the act of being around other children. And risky play often doesn’t happen in isolation. Building an atmosphere where children support and coach each other. I often like to refer other children to each other. Phrases like, “Ariel, Jacobi is feeling unsure of how to get down from the tree. You’ve climbed it before. Do you have any advice?” or “David is not wanting to touch the worm, but might like to see it. Would you like to show him how you hold it?”
Inclusive risky play carefully selects role models.
Children need to see role models that look and act like them taking healthy risks. And children who are traditionally centered in the outdoors (white, cis/hetero, male, able-bodied folx) need to see counternarratives that disrupt the idea that the outdoors is theirs. This means that it’s not only important to have a diverse and representative staff, but also to choose classroom materials that offer those role models. Children’s books should offer stories of all types of identities outside, doing risky stuff. I love this list of stories of Black boys in the outdoors, for example. Stories of Black climbers, Latinx conservationists, disabled marathoners, and real people engaging in risky fun can be shared and brought in. Invite guests to share their hobbies. Leave out a copy of Rue Mapp’s Nature Swagger in the class space.
Giving families a chance to volunteer and participate in the risky play is also an option. Note that it’s not always accessible for families to take time out of their work day to join, so other family events and ways for families to share pictures of how they spend time outside can also be powerful!
Inclusive risky play gives children a safe space to try, fail, and try again.
Regardless of what types of opportunities we offer young children, they deserve to be able to try new things, make mistakes, and try again with the support of a loving adult. Of course, building relationships with children are at the core of this. Children need to trust us in order to be vulnerable.
The language that we use can be critical in encouraging kids to develop resilience in challenging situations. When we use phrases that treat children as capable, they become problem solvers! Instead of stopping them with "Be careful," we can guide them to be aware, make changes, try new ways, and be successful.
One resource I love is "What to Say to Kids Instead of 'Be Careful," from the Backwoods Mama Blog. I always have a copy hanging in my outdoor storage or binder while I'm teaching.
For some children, we may also need to label their emotions and narrate for them and others may need you to co-regulate with them. "You are looking frustrated. Let's see how we can get you more steady on this log!"
Risky play can be for everyone
Children deserve access to high quality risky play in early childhood that is safe for them, that honors them. As early educators and administrators, we have an important role in advocating for children's right to play. We need to continuously address the barriers to risky play and partner deeply with families to meet each child's needs.
Want more on risky play? Register for this upcoming workshop!