​Risky play or hazardous play?

Risky play can be described as a form of play evoking feelings of thrill and excitement which may involve the potential risk of physical injury. Allowing your child to participate in risky play, no matter how anxious it makes you as a parent (!) is nonetheless important in helping them to develop important neural pathways, problem solving skills and a confidence in their own abilities.

Children most often engage in such play during outdoor free play, as opposed to during indoor or structured, adult led play. Risky play quite often appears when children look to push beyond what they can easily achieve. Differences in children’s desire to engage in risky play depends on their perception of the risk associated with the situation. It is interesting to observe that what children classify as risky play varies depending on their gender, age and skill development.

Risky play is different to hazardous play. Risky play involves the possibility of potential injury as children negotiate their limits of capability. As adults, we distinguish hazards as being potentially harmful whereas we understand risks may be potentially beneficial. Play becomes hazardous when the potential for injury is no longer a possibility but rather a certainty.

Harm can occur when children engage in play that is not developmentally appropriate. Hazardous play also occurs when children are engaged in risky play without the support and supervision of someone capable of assisting them to negotiate associated risks.

Educators and carers have the opportunity to engage children with risk in different ways. They can plan and develop opportunities within a ‘risk rich’ early childhood curriculum which embraces the unknown as well as new ideas and relationships. Risk-taking can be a way of influencing purposeful decision making based on collaboration, allowing the exploration of curiosity, the application of imagination. As adults, we participate by showing trust and openness to the activity; we give freedom and room to experiment.

Children will intentionally seek out risk in their play, it is a naturally occurring element in their development. The types of risks children choose to engage in may include play involving great heights, high speed, dangerous tools, dangerous elements, rough and tumble play and/or disappearing or getting lost. Don’t be alarmed when your child pushes these boundaries; learning is occurring!

It is vital children are given space to play without the intervention of adults. They grow by experiencing the thrill (and fear) of some types of outdoor explorative play; these opportunities in an external environment help them to discover what they are capable of and to develop both physical and mental strength. Testing boundaries can build confidence and feelings of achievement and empowerment. Children who enjoy exploring, are physically active and participate in play without adult interference are more engaged, develop skills in relation to managing their environment and are happier.

For those still unconvinced consider this, allowing some risky play helps your child develop risk perception and risk competence skills. These skills are important in assisting children to develop an understanding about how to navigate risks. Graded exposure to situations which might evoke feelings of fear or anxiety while supporting children in what these feelings are and how to manage them is also associated with the inclusion of risky play in education and care.

Playing outdoors can provide children with unique experiences not easily replicated in artificial or indoor environments. Natural settings are more dynamic and diverse than artificial playgrounds and provide opportunities for children’s judgement, abilities, and curiosities to be challenged. The weather is worth mentioning too; risky play doesn’t stop because it may be wet or windy or a bit warm or cold.  It can be used as part of the educational experience as children learn how to look after themselves, and each other, in different weather conditions.

To sum up, risky play helps, hazardous play hurts. Risky play creates opportunities for children to try new skills, build and develop relationships through discovery in stimulating and challenging environments.