Theory and practice

How to introduce more risky play in the Early Years— and why it matters

8 ways to encourage risky play in early childhood
6 ways to encourage risky play in early childhood
October 18, 2022
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In a hurry? Here's the quick run-down:

  • It's becoming increasingly clear that risky play in the early years is a key part of any child's development. Jumping off logs, climbing trees, sliding, slipping and speeding around were once a natural part of any childhood. But we've become a bit more risk-averse lately — bumps and bruises can scare us away from rough and tumble play. And when we do that, we lose out on the many brilliant benefits of risky play.
  • In early education, appropriate risky play doesn't mean dangerous play. It's about creating environments for children that allow them to explore a controlled amount of risk taking, without running into real hazards.
  • That's where you step in: making sure that every child gets the opportunity to push their boundaries and explore what they can do when it comes to their risky play.

What is risky play in the early years?

Before we start, let's take a second to think about what we mean by risky play.

Risky play is thrilling and exciting. It's got a risk of physical injury. It's challenging, it tests limits and it helps children to explore and establish their own boundaries. It could be climbing, sliding, balancing jumping and hanging, rolling or using potentially dangerous tools.

Ellen Beate Hansen Sandseter, an expert in the area of risky play, breaks it down into six main areas:

  • Rapid speeds – This could be swinging or sliding, or riding on something with wheels. Anything to get that thrill of speed.
  • Dangerous tools – This might be knives and saws, drills and hammers or bigger tools. It's all about the control of something dangerous and the excitement they feel in being trusted.
  • Dangerous elements – This covers things like fire or deep bodies of water. The danger is fun!
  • Rough and tumble – Children tend to prefer being chased or in a vulnerable position when they play rough and tumble – all the better because it's harder to overcome and involves the most risk.
  • Great heights – Going up high trees or buildings gives a huge feeling of achievement and some pretty good views.
  • Disappearing or getting lost – Hide and seek gives children the temporary feeling of separation without any real danger of being forgotten.

Why is risky play important in the Early Years?

There's some suggestion that it's evolutionary, helping young children to explore and learn, and there's been proof that it's found in many other young mammals too. Managing risks is a key life skill, and from an early age, it helps us understand our own abilities, and use critical thinking for how to use them in play.

Without taking risks, it seems that developing mammals can overreact to new environments and go into fight or flight immediately when faced with unfamiliar peers. This all feeds into the emotion regulation theory of play, that one of play's major functions is to teach developing brains how to regulate fear and anger. In that sense, learning risk management skills is a key part of child development.

And your role as an early educator? To find the right balance. To ensure that children are able to enjoy all the benefits of risky play in the early years without any serious injuries really taking place.

So risky play is natural and invaluable for children in how they understand the world around them. But it also allows them to experience crucial emotions, such as:

  • Hesitation
  • Excitement
  • Fear
  • Joy
  • Mastery

And if that all wasn't enough, the kind of physical, outdoors activity normally associated with risky play in the early years is great for a whole bunch of skills such as motor control, balance, coordination, body awareness and risk assessment.

Most simply, it's because they enjoy it. Any activity that a child is engaged in and focused on is likely to be a great learning opportunity, and that's the case with risky play in the early years.

What's more, it's where children learn about risk. If they're not exposed to risk in their lives, they have no chance to learn how to assess it and manage different situations. Even the Health and Safety Executive agree…

“The goal is not to eliminate risk, but to weigh up the risks and benefits. No child will learn about risk if they are wrapped in cotton wool”

- Children’s Play and Leisure – Promoting A Balance Approach, HSE

The big ideas

Confronting gender bias in risky play

Whenever you're working on risky play, be watchful of your unconscious biases. Whether we mean to or not, many people tend to encourage messy, risky little boy adventurers and don't do quite as well with the girls. Just watch that you're encouraging all children equally and that you're not complimenting the boys on pushing their boundaries more than you are with the girls.

For more ideas on how to create a more gender equal environment at your nursery, you might want to read this article on gender exploratory play, and how children learn (or don't learn) bias in early childhood.

Now let's get to those tips.

1. Trust children to know their own limits

One of the most important things to remember when it comes to risky play in the early years is to trust the children. They may be motivated to explore their boundaries but they also know their capacities, often a lot better than you will. They know what they're ready for.

This is why you can't push risk-taking, but instead, ensure that you have an environment that is ripe for little explorers to take their own. By pushing a child too far, you'll leave them with trauma and shame, making them turn away from fun adventures in the future.

But by hitting that sweet spot, and allowing children to find their own ‘discomfort zone', you'll provide a thrilling learning environment for your little ones.

2. Assess the risks and cut out the hazards

Of course, there will be some risks that are too great, and occasionally you'll have a few learners who need a helping hand to find their boundaries.

You don't want children's lives to be in danger, or any serious injury to be likely. That's why with any new piece of equipment we do risk-benefit assessments, working out whether the risk of a resource or activity far outweighs the benefit.

Is something guaranteed to be seriously dangerous? Well, then it's probably not OK. But is there a low chance of bumps, grazes, or cuts? Maybe that's alright. These marks help children to manage their own bodies and it's simply a part of growing up. More importantly, by not giving access to risky resources, the children are missing out on an important piece of the development puzzle.

You need to think about the hazards of course, but don't focus on the worst-case scenario. If the potential injuries are minor or unlikely then the benefits probably outweigh the risks.

3. Support children to struggle and overcome

It's difficult to resist the urge to help a child when they're struggling, but by interfering, you're stopping a potentially valuable learning experience.

Falling, failing, hurting yourself a little – that's all part of the process of managing your body and understanding risk. Getting your intervention right as a practitioner or leader is the key to getting risky play in the early years right.

If you want to see how this works in the real world, this article from Teacher Tom is great on getting the intervention right and why it's invaluable in building a child's resilience. But if direct intervention isn't the answer, what can you do to support a child's risky play? Well, one thing you can do is…

4. Ask questions to encourage children to think critically

We all know the power of open-ended questions in the early years, but nowhere are they more important than in risky play.

Your language is very important when it comes to risky play in the early years. You don't want to say no (unless it really is life-threatening) and you need to be careful not to pass over your own fears in the way you speak. ‘It's too high' and ‘Come down from there' are sentences that need to be shelved.

Instead, you can use language that encourages children to more carefully consider what they're doing. Try questions like:

  • Where should your foot go next?
  • Do you feel safe?
  • Does that feel wobbly?
  • Show me how you can be careful!

You can also consider asking them to talk you through their decisions to make sure they really are thinking about their own next steps. If you want to encourage more risky play, instructions are not the way. Try prompts instead, like leaving a plank over some tires or placing certain things out of reach with nearby resources that they can use to stand on.

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5. Set sufficient time aside for risky play

Often, problems with risky play in the early years come when an activity is rushed, not because the activity is unsafe. This can be particularly problematic when you need to transition to another part of the nursery day.

This is why you need to be a bit flexible with your schedule when you're doing risky play. Moving a child on when they're close to a result, or when they're engrossed in something risky can be damaging to their confidence and cause behavioural problems.

You need to make proper time for outdoor and physical play too, and ensure you have enough staff to properly supervise. This can be difficult in a busy setting but once you understand the crucial role that risky play performs in a child's development, it's clear that the payoff is worth it.

6. Get the parents and carers on board

If you really want risky play to work at your setting, you can't afford to skip this step.

Without parent approval, you're going to face an uphill battle for every little cut or scrape. What's more, the education won't be consistent if the same principles and attitudes aren't being followed at home too.

You need to educate parents on the benefits of risky play in the early years. Start with articles like this one that can help parents with ideas on how to encourage more outdoor risks.

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Official Danish Government Reopening Advice

Guidance from the Danish Health Ministry, translated in full to English.

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UK Nursery Covid-19 Response Group Recommendations

The full recommendations from a working group of over 70 nursery chains in the UK.

Please note: here at Famly we love sharing creative activities for you to try with the children at your setting, but you know them best. Take the time to consider adaptions you might need to make so these activities are accessible and developmentally appropriate for the children you work with. Just as you ordinarily would, conduct risk assessments for your children and your setting before undertaking new activities, and ensure you and your staff are following your own health and safety guidelines.

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