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Risky Play

‘Free the child’s potential and

you will transform him into the world'

Maria Montessori

Most of my fondest childhood memories involved nature, freedom, and risk -- climbing trees and hills, running in fields, playing in street with my friends, building a barrier and then swimming in the local river, camping or riding the bike with no hands. Yes, there were falls, bruises and wounds, torn clothes and mud in my hair, but it was so worth it! Those moments were filled with laughter, fun and connection with my beloved friends and family. However, what was then considered a norm is now defined as ‘risky play’ and "safer" play has become increasingly regulated and controlled. So my question is: is play without risk actual safer?

Humans are drawn to risk taking and learning through experience. A newborn baby takes a risk in turning on its belly, or trying to crawl; or when it pulls itself up or tries new food; and later runs as fast as it can and then wants to climb higher and higher. Why do children seek opportunities to challenge themselves and take risks in their play? Because it is fun, exciting and liberating. It is a natural way of learning and building life skills that would not be developed otherwise. Children (and humans in general) learn through doing, they learn through play and they have a natural desire to master themselves and embrace life. We are not born with the skills to perform certain tasks: riding a bike takes pain, bravery and time, but through repetition and perseverance, we develop the skills to ride it. Through the learning process we experienced: gravity, surfaces, reacting quickly, calculating hazards, momentum, impact, velocity, inclines. As adults, how can we teach these without hands on experience?

'Risky play' means providing unpredictable, uncertain, and/or potentially hazardous opportunities for children to be involved in. Such risky play might include following activities:

• Play with Great Heights (balancing, hanging, climbing, etc.)

• Play with High Speed (running, biking, sliding, etc.)

• Play with Dangerous Tools (sawing, cutting, etc.)

• Play near Dangerous Elements (water, fire, etc.)

• Play Where Children Can Get Lost (play in woodland, field, etc.)

How does risky play help in your child's holistic development?

Physical development:

Building fine and gross motor skills; refining balance and coordination

Intellectual development:

Increasing awareness of their capabilities and limits of their own bodies; assessing and making judgment about risk; being aware of safety measures; understanding consequence to action; building creative thinking, resourcefulness and inventiveness; problem solving; building curiosity and wonder; reading and understanding an environment

Language development:

Broadening the understanding of the world by making sense of experiences through language; acquiring new language from the experiences at hand

Emotional development:

Building resilience and persistence, confidence and independence; experiencing and managing emotions such as hesitation, excitement, fear, pleasure and mastery

Social development:

Respecting an environment; experiencing freedom within a group; taking suggestions; taking turns; collaborating; sharing opinions and experiences; building friendship; empathy and compassion; sharing triumphs and struggles

Research shows that children who are overprotected and not allowed to be involved in risky play have poorer motor skills, are less capable to read everyday risks, have lower self-esteem and have lack of resilience resulting in different mental and emotional issues such as anxiety and fear.

When we understand the great benefits of risky play, where we should start when comes to introducing such play in our children’s lives?

Spend time outside:

The first place to go to support your child in risky play. Leave the safety of the indoors and go for walks, visit your surrounding neighbourhoods, find the wild/natural nature areas such as forests, parks or shorelines.

Consider your warnings:

Be aware of the language you use. Saying: ‘be careful!’; ‘It’s too high!’ or ‘It’s too dangerous!’ (unless it actually is) will stick with the children and these warnings will make them fearful in situations in which they shouldn’t necessarily be.

Let children to take lead:

Let them to decide what they want to explore and master when they play outside. Allow them to explore what a forest has to offer, splash in puddles, climb a rock or jump from logs.

Dress your children appropriately:

Dress them in clothes you wouldn't mind being affected by the elements! Free your children from your constrains of needing to be clean or presentable. Dress them appropriately to the weather so they feel comfortable and free.

Listen and trust:

If they want to do something independent and build those skills, think twice before you seed your doubt into their minds. Children are actually very good at assessing the risks and they want to be trusted in their efforts.

Give your children tools:

Give them shovels for digging soil, nails to hammer and work on their own projects, let them to cut their fruits and veggies or build a mud kitchen; follow the interest of your child

See the potential in all weather:

Teach your child not to fear rain, snow or wind and find an activity that is fun even in less ideal weather conditions.

Pause before helping:

It might be very hard to resist the urge to help our children when they are struggling, but by interfering we will stop them from a valuable learning experience. They might fall and hurt a little but it is all part of the process of understanding the risks and managing their own body.

Our role as adults is to enable risks not to prevent them; however, we also have to make sure that we are not placing the child in actual danger. Serious injuries are of course to be avoided, but pumps, bruises and minor cuts might be unavoidable while our children master those skills through repetition. So, what we can do to let children benefit from the risky play and avoid serious harm at the same time?

Assess the risk

Is something guaranteed to be seriously dangerous? If so, it’s probably not OK.

Is there a chance of bumps or minor cuts? That might be alright.

Risks that don’t bring substantial benefit for a child such as sharp edges, unstable structures or items that include traps for fingers or heads should be avoided.

It is important to understand which risk must be avoided, which risks are worth taking and how to prevent serious injuries.

For example, you might consider woodworking as dangerous; however, if you supervise the children, give them appropriate tools, set the rules to follow you might find that benefits of such risky activity exceeds the risks.

Is your 2 year old eager to cut paper with scissors? Find scissors with blunt ends, show your child how to use them and carry them and set the rules e.g. cutting at the table, no running with the scissors.

Ask the right questions

Open ended questions are important when comes to risky play. We should be careful not to pass our fear to our child by saying: ‘It’s too high!’, ‘You will hurt yourself!’ Come down from there!’ The bigger the child’s fear is, the higher chance of injury there is. Instead, you can encourage your child to be more careful and ask questions such as: ‘Where your foot should go next?’, ‘Does it feel wobbly?’, ‘Do you feel safe?’, ‘How do we handle hammer, scissors, etc.?’ Talk about risks as a matter of fact and not as something ‘bad’ and something to be fearful about.

You could discuss with your children their decisions to make sure that they think about the next steps; however, giving instructions is not the way to encourage problem solving, resourcefulness and inventiveness

Make the time

Often the outcome of risky play is not positive because the activities are rushed and not because they are unsafe. Never rush your child because there is something else on your agenda. Not only do you create a higher chance of injury, but stopping your child when they are close to the desired achievement cis an obstacle that can be easily avoided with some careful planning.

Real everyday life is full of risks and challenges, and children should have opportunities to develop skills that help them to assess and manage those risks. By allowing them to be involved in risky play we support their growth and keep them safe from serious harm in the long run.

We need to trust our children in their efforts to grow into stronger and wiser human beings: they may know their capacities a lot better than we give them credit for! What might be thrilling for one child might be terrifying for another and therefore we have to let them to identify their own level or risk. If we really observe the children as they try new things we will often see their genuine desire to keep themselves safe from the harm, while at the same time, they keep pushing themselves to learn new things. Look at the resilience of babies trying to walk for the first time. They will hold on until the last moment trying to steady themselves before they let go. A three year old might feel that he needs help while walking down a steep hill and asks for your hand to complete his journey.

Being risk aware is far healthier than being risk averse. Let’s be the biggest fans of our children’s explorations and support them on their journey to self mastery.


Eva is an Early Years Educator and Montessori pedagogue at Little Gems Montessori, Larnaca. If you're curious about how we promote risk in our curriculum, get in touch! or 999 50070 / 96 557661.

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