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Risky Play – What You Need to Know

When you think back to your favorite childhood play experiences, chances are they took place outdoors, unsupervised, and while hanging out with friends. A lot has changed in our world since we were kids but one thing that hasn’t changed is the developmental needs of children. 

At TerraTime, we believe the opportunity for risky play is imperative for healthy child development. Your child’s safety is a priority for us and we realize the words “risky play” can create anxiety in the heart of a parent. To help alleviate some of your concerns, we wanted to give you an overview of what risky play is, what it looks like in our outdoor classroom, and why we think it’s so important.

What Is Risky Play?

Mariana Brussoni, a professor at the University of British Columbia and BC Children’s Hospital, has spent years researching the benefits of play that have an element of risk. She explains, “Risky play for children is thrilling and exciting play where children engage in risk without certainty.”

Risky play involves children experimenting and pushing themselves to figure out what will happen, without knowing the exact outcome. If children don’t go far enough with their play, it’s boring and if they go too far, it gets scary. Children need to be able to test their environment and determine what they’re comfortable with.

How Do We Make Risky Play Safe at TerraTime?

1) Setting Up the Environment & Removing Hazards

The most important elements in setting up an environment for risky play are the time and space to take risks. We provide a minimum of 2 hours of our day for child-directed play, we keep our program size small, and provide ample adult supervision. We also provide loose parts (logs, mud, tarps, crates, sticks, tires, planks, ropes, bricks, wood, tools, etc.) that encourage freedom to create and experiment with. 

Our goal is to set up our outdoor classroom to be a “yes” environment with very few rules.  The big two are 1) staying within the boundaries, and 2) if it will cause harm to something living, don’t do it. The other guidelines are related to the number of children that can be on a swing or hammock due to weight capacity, only one child climbing in a tree at a time, and keeping nails in a designated area.

In addition to setting up the environment, we complete a risk assessment of our area and remove hazards that are not conducive to a teachable moment. Every morning, a team member walks through our classroom inspecting swings, bathrooms, and the environment for hazards before children arrive.

2) Adult Proximity

Adult proximity is another way we make risky play safe. When we see a child entering risky play, we move closer to watch and listen. Providing children with the opportunity to figure things out for themselves and learn what they can do allows children to develop important risk-management skills.

Adult proximity allows us to gain insights into a child’s thought process and intervene when needed. Adults intervene at the lowest level needed. Depending on our risk assessment, this may start with questions and lead to guidance, or it may be physically stepping in to prevent harm.

3) Asking Questions & Providing Guidance

Asking questions encourages children to think through what they are doing and why, and is another way we make risky play safe. Asking questions also redirects children to figuring things out for themselves instead of having an adult ‘fix’ it for them.

Instead of saying, “Be careful” or stepping in to provide a solution, we often use these questions and statements at TerraTime:

  • If an adult wasn’t here, what would you do?

  • Have you asked a friend?

  • Have you climbed a tree before?

  • What are some things you might need to look out for when you are climbing?

  • How does your body feel? If you are feeling afraid, that’s your body’s way of saying you are high enough.

  • Stop and think about where your body is. How can you move your body to get to where you feel safe?

  • Look around. What do you see? How can you make this safe for your friends nearby?

  • Tell me about your plan.

  • What else could you try? What else could you use?

We are not against helping children but we don’t want to rob them of the joy of figuring things out on their own.

We have also found that children tend to attempt physical challenges according to their skill level. If we step in and help them climb a tree they are unable to climb independently, harm may come from helping them past their ability. The more they practice, the stronger they become and their confidence grows as they learn what their body is capable of.

**Just a note on the pictures we post – The angle we take pictures can give a false impression of danger. Below are a couple of pictures for you to get an idea:

Child experiencing risky play by climbing a ladder.
Child swinging on rope
Child climbing tree

What Are the Benefits of Risky Play?

Risky play can help develop a child’s skills in decision making, problem-solving, resilience, executive functioning, and risk management. These skills are a foundational part of developing positive social, emotional, cognitive, and motor skills.

In addition, Brussoni’s work in injury prevention research shows that engaging in risky play can reduce the risk of injury. Risky play actually helps keep children safer than having no risk-taking opportunities.

When your child comes home and says, “I climbed a ladder!” or “I got to climb a tree!” Celebrate with them. Ask them how it made them feel. Then check out the pictures on our private Facebook page to see them in action.

Looking for more ideas to support child-directed play? Check out these posts >>

Learn more about TerraTime programs >>

Links to research:

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