Why Risky Play is Important

Updated: Oct 28

Risky play is important because it helps children learn boundaries and teaches them about their own physical limits.



Imagine this:


Your child is climbing a play structure.

You look away for just a second.

When you look back, your child is at the very top of the structure, balancing on a thin rail and screams, 

“Look mom, no hands!”

You spring into action to try to avoid a terrible fall and you scream back, 

“Get down from there! You’ll fall!”

Your child looks at you in bewilderment.


Now let’s imagine a different scenario.


Your child is climbing a play structure.

You look away for just a second.

When you look back, your child is at the very top of the structure, balancing on a thin rail and screams, 

“Look mom, no hands!”

Your instinct is to spring into action to try to avoid a terrible fall and scream, 

“Get down from there! You’ll fall!”

But you don’t scream.

You stand nearby and you give your child words of encouragement: 

“Wow that is pretty high. I trust you to be careful up there.”

Your child breaks into a huge smile as they carefully maneuver their way across the rail.


It is our instinct as parents to protect our babies.


Feeling scared or nervous when your child climbs high or picks up a long stick is natural. Parenting is scary!


However, if we want our children to grow up with confidence and the ability to trust their own instincts, then we cannot fear their capabilities. We must give them the opportunity to explore the world, make mistakes and learn from those mistakes.



Allowing your child to experience reasonable risk, first-hand, actually gives them a better understanding of safety and the ability to judge danger for themselves.


Does this mean every child should be allowed to climb to the top of a play structure?


No.


You have to introduce your child to risky play slowly and in a way that is appropriate for their age and abilities. Start small. 


When your 14 month old is climbing to the top of the small, toddler-sized slide, stand nearby and let them slide down on their own. They may fall off at the bottom. Let them. Allow them to feel independent while you stand close by, cheering them on.



When your 3 year old is at the top of the Pikler triangle trying to get over its peak, but they are struggling and scared, stand close by and cheer them on. When they finally accomplish their goal independently, they will feel so much pride and satisfaction!



When you are camping with your 7 year old,  rather than keep them far away from the fire, allow them to carefully place a log on the fire by themselves. Talk to them first about fire safety, and make sure they have a clear understanding, and then stand close by and cheer them on.


Each small step leads to something bigger: each accomplishment leads to a greater sense of self-confidence and a better understanding of their abilities.


Know your child.

Teach your child.

Trust your child.

Stand close by and cheer them on.


Eventually your child will develop the skills needed to trust their own instincts and test their own physical abilities. 


Do you worry about how this looks to other parents?


Some parents want to let their children navigate their play independently - risk and all - but they worry about the nay-sayers. 


There is always someone giving you the “stink eye” when you let your child climb up the slide. It is hard to allow your child to be more self-directed when you feel judged by strangers.


After all the research I have done in the department of child development and play, there is one rule I stick to: if my child is not hurting anyone else, physically or emotionally, then what they are doing is OK.


What if a child wants to slide down while my child wants to climb up?


You might start a conversation with your child about the issues that may arise when they choose to climb up the slide. This way they will learn to judge the scenario themselves. They will learn that the ideal time to climb up the slide is when the structure is not crowded. 


An important lesson to hammer down is that, in play, it is always, always, always necessary to be considerate of others, use common decency and be respectful and fair. 


Once a child understands this message, I believe they should be allowed to figure things out independently, without being tied down to so many rules and restrictions.


One of my favourite parenting experts is Heather Shumaker. She wrote a book called “It’s OK to go UP the Slide: Renegade Rules for Raising Confident and Creative Kids.” She talks about many benefits to children going UP the slide. They learn to:

  • Develop gross motor skills 

  • Test physical strength

  • Learn balance and spatial awareness

  • Become more socially aware and considerate of others

  • Use creative and imaginative play


Heather Shumaker says, “For many kids, going up a slide is a challenge and risk: Can my body do this? Young kids are testing personal limits because their bodies keep changing. Once they can figure out their limit, they stay within it. Climbing up a slide is a way of experimenting.”


So, let your child climb up the slide and risk falling off or facing conflict with another child.


Let your child go barefoot in the park and risk stepping on a rock.


Let your child use a semi-sharp knife to help you cut vegetables for dinner and risk getting a small cut.


Be close by. Offer to help if they need help. Give them words of encouragement.


The benefits of risky play are both physical and emotional. We can all use some risk in our day...and in our play!




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