Risky Play

By TK Hannah


“Safety is more important than anything!”

These are the words I heard declared from a 7-year-old at forest school this week.

While I agree, I feel that there is something else behind her words. Fear.

This fear keeps us from assessing our situations and forming decisions, from taking manageable risks. It prevents us from making mistakes, learning, and realizing how resilient we really are. Fear calls us to be idle in life, avoiding opportunities for learning, adventure, and fun. I didn’t feel this fear as a child, I was the first to be running through the forest, no shoes on, skinned knees, climbing high into a tree till the branches became thin and bent under my weight. I wasn’t reckless either, on my summer vacations in rural northern Ontario I didn’t partake in jumping off 30 feet bridges that my cousins did. I knew my comfort level and assessed my risks.

My parents prided themselves on being “free-range parents” so, they weren’t hovering, telling me to “be careful”. They included me in the processes of decision making, risk assessment and put trust in my abilities.

As we get older we feel that we are masters in managing risk, but then comes the children. This strikes a new fear in parents and educators. We are responsible for their safety and how can we keep these little beings safe while encouraging their independence in a world that seems full of dangers.

I will admit something here. Even though I am a big advocate for risk, when I watch one of my students engage in a risky activity, the worst-case scenario inevitably pops into my head. I mentally prepare myself to make use of all the first aid classes I’ve taken (though I have never had to use other than the occasional bandaid) When I sleep, I am met with anxiety dreams of a child being lost in the forest and no matter what I do I can’t find them. Daily, I feel the words “be careful” bubbling up from my throat. I’m not even a parent and this fear is beckoning to control my practice. So why do we want our children engaging in risky play anyways?

Taking risks in childhood can have “positive implications in terms of children’s developmental, social and emotional needs, as well as their overall health. By providing opportunities for children to manage their own risks in a controlled environment, they will learn vital life skills needed for adulthood, and gain the experience needed to face the unpredictable nature of the world (Gill, 2007)… Risk-taking is considered to have further benefits, which contribute to the development of desirable personality traits, including creativity (Susa and Benedict in Ball, 2002)… encouraging children to enjoy challenges rather than to shy away from them could also increase their persistence and learning abilities.’ (Dweck 2000)

Now that we know the immense social, emotional, and physical benefits of risk-taking, the question becomes how do we as adults encourage risk-taking while soothing our anxieties and fears about keeping our children safe?

Let’s talk about the risks I’m speaking of here,

Sandseter identified risky play in early childhood in these categories:

  1. Play with great heights;

  2. Play with high speed;

  3. Play with harmful tools;

  4. Play near dangerous elements

  5. Rough‐and‐tumble play; and

  6. Play where the children can ‘disappear’/get lost

Many parents talk to me fondly about when they were kids they were able to play outside in nature their own, but this is not a comfort many of us share anymore. Furthermore, we are riddled with anxieties over activities that were surely involved in our childhood such as wet feet, wet pants, dirty hands, cold weather, mushrooms, bumped heads, high jumps, tree climbing, etc.

At forest school rather than eliminating all risks, we do a risk/benefit assessment.

For example: Wet feet. What are the risks? Being uncomfortable, unpleasant emotion. What are the benefits of river exploration and water play? Science, sensory play, natural connection, coordination, etc. The benefits clearly outweigh the risks.

Now, let’s take a more tricky one. Tree climbing. The risk level goes up while it still has great benefits such as physical strength, coordination, concentration, focus, and spatial problem-solving. So how do we mitigate this risk while allowing our children the experience the benefits of these activities?

As an educator and parent using language to help children to think critically about their level of safety are extremely helpful. Children should be involved actively in the process of risk assessment rather than us trying to control their movements and activities. Questions such as “what do you notice around/under you?” “what are the possible risks about that activity?” “How can we make this safer?” Or even a simple “Do you feel safe?”

Asking these questions is different than an intervention that interrupts the process of learning and play. Let’s take the wet feet for example, when we observe a child who steps too deep into the river and we see the water flow into their boots, should we be interrupting play and learning to change their socks? Or should we simply step back, enjoy the moment, learn with them, and let them tell us when they are cold and uncomfortable. Being prepared at that moment with new socks, and a warm hug.

When we don’t intervene in risky play. This is a risk we are taking as adults. I call on you to breathe, count to ten, subdue that “be careful” and take a risk! Sure, they may fall and hurt themselves but you will be there to help them pick themselves up again. To hug them and support them as they discover how resilient they are.