Risky Play and Its Impact on Learning and Development
By Cédric Pedrosa, Teacher CLIP (Oporto International School)
Let’s start by recalling your favourite moments from school or even from your childhood… Playing in your street with your neighbors, school break-time, fieldtrips, possibly your first camping experience, perhaps your family trips to the beach. I’m certain that most of your memorable moments happened outside, am I right?
However, our current reality is changing. External factors are impacting children’s opportunities for outdoor play. According to McCurdy et al. (2010), today’s children, especially in Western counties, spend more time watching television and playing indoors than they do being physically active outdoors. Parents and teachers worry about traffic, kidnapping, injuries, and end up over-protecting their children/students. Play has become increasingly regulated and controlled.
Risks of Risk Reduction
People expect that by removing risks, children will be able to play in a safer environment. This approach however fails to acknowledge risk-taking as a positive feature of children’s play and learning (Tovey, 2011). According to Sandseter (2010) a safety-obsessed society will result in children whom are less physically fit, have poor motor skills, and are less able to manage every day risks. Gleave & Coster (2008) add that mental health professionals also argue that the lack of risk in play can lead to a lack of resilience and ultimately mental health issues, resulting in the need for professional intervention. Can a Playground Be Too Safe?
Risky Play and Child Development
Risks are everywhere and being able to manage them appropriately is a life skill. Learning to walk is a natural risky learning moment that often comes with bruises, tumbles and falls. Swimming, biking, going up the slide, climbing trees, playing with pebbles or sticks are other types of risky play that most children naturally gravitate to, but are often asked to avoid.
Bazley (2008) states that risky play means providing opportunities for all children to encounter or create uncertainty, unpredictability, and potential hazards as part of their play. We do not mean putting children in danger of serious harm.
Risky play prepare kids for life. According to Tovey (2010), experiencing appropriate risky play will help children to:
- Challenge themselves to succeed;
- Have the chance to fail and try again, and again;
- Help them cope with stressful situations (self-regulation);
- Develop self-confidence and self-esteem;
- Increase creativity;
- Develop independence;
- Understand their own limits;
- Improve social interaction skills;
- Improve motor skills and body awareness;
- Understand and respect their environment.
Risk Assessment for Appropriate Risk-Taking
Appropriate risky play comes with many benefits for learning and development. However, bad risks are risks that don’t bring any substantial benefit for the child such as sharp edges, unstable heavy structures or traps for heads. Therefore, a previous risk assessment of the outdoor continuous provision or of a school playground is essential to understand which risks must be eliminated or minimised (bad risks) and which risks are worth taking (good risks). There are many samples of risk assessments across the Internet without really any wrong or correct version.
Risks are not absolutes and perceptions of risk and danger are individually and socially constructed (Lupton, 2006).
Assessing a play area should be an organic process, often reviewed by a team of providers and changed according to children’s needs, school vision, professional experience, etc. By identifying which risks are worth offering to children, the risks assessors will naturally promote risky play and its learning and development benefits.
Sandseter (2007) categorises risky play into six different types of risks that helps us understand what children gravitate to when playing:
- Play with Great Heights (balancing, hanging, climbing, etc.)
- Play with High Speed (running, biking, sliding, etc.)
- Play with Dangerous Tools (sawing, cutting, whipping, etc.)
- Play near Dangerous Elements (water, fire, etc.)
- Rough and Tumble Play (wrestling, play fighting, etc.)
- Play Where Children Can Get Lost – (play in woodland, etc.)
By adapting a play area according to these categories, the risks assessors will enhance the benefits of risky play. Sandseter affirms that when not all of types of risks are found in every play environment, the children will instinctively try to find another way of experiencing them, sometimes in unsupervised environments. New playgrounds are safe – and that’s why nobody uses them.
Promoting Risky Play
By adding a climbing frame, a trampoline and trees to a play area, children will have the chance to play with great heights and, for instance, manage and understand their own limits or even develop resilience by persisting until succeeding to climb to a self-chosen height.
Bikes, trolleys, balls, swings will develop children’s motor skills. Appropriate and supervised play/activities with knifes, for example will develop the sense of trust and responsibility in them. Ponds are great to develop respect and understanding of water and swimming lessons will develop confidence and independence.
Rough play, so often forbidden, is a rich experience which some children use to explore their force, develop social skills, creativity, and identify and talk about feelings and emotions (especially when it gets too rough).
Weekly walks to a forest nearby will promote freedom, independence, sense of orientation, self-confidence but also respect and understanding for Nature.
By carefully promoting every type of risky play, the providers will offer an environment that naturally offers risky play to children, giving them the freedom to explore, play and learn, developing into confident and skillful citizens.
- How much time do your children/students play/learn outside/inside?
- Have you risk assessed your play area?
- How do your children/students play?
- Are they too safe? Are they in danger?
- What learning opportunities are you facilitating to your children/students in the outdoors?
- What are your work colleagues’ opinions regarding risky play?
- Have you shared your vision/thoughts with the parents of your students?
Cédric Pedrosa, born in Geneva, Switzerland, earned his master’s degree in Primary Education from University of Minho. After internships and projects in Portugal, Poland, and Cape Verde, he moved to Germany, where he worked as a teacher assistant in a Special Education School and later, as an Early Years teacher. Education is undeniably his passion, although his heart is in teaching young learners.
He currently teaches at CLIP (Oporto International School) since 2015 as an Early Years Teacher. He believes in creating a unique balance between the development of 21st century competencies through Forest School, the development of curiosity and creativity through the Reggio Emilia approach, as well as the development of independence through Montessori inspired theory.
Three years ago, he initiated a project called Outdoor Day at CLIP, which encourages young students to connect with nature as they play, learn and explore. Having concluded his Forest School Leader training in 2018, Cédric now spreads the positive impact and learning potential of Forest School and Outdoor Learning through Talks and Workshops.
Bazley, S (2018) Play Wales: A Playworkers guide to risk.
Coster, D. & Gleave, J. (2008) Give us a go! Children and young people’s views on play and risk-taking. Play Day.
McCurdy, L., Winterbottom, K., Mehta, S. & Roberts, J. (2010). Using nature and outdoor activity to improve children’s health. Current Problems in Pediatric and Adolescent Health Care.
Lupton, Deborah. (2006). Sociology and risk. Beyond the risk society: Critical reflections on risk and human security.
Sandseter, E. B. H. (2007). Categorizing risky play – How can we identify risk-taking in children’s play? European Early Childhood Education Research Journal.
Sandseter, E. B. H. (2010a). Scaryfunny. A Qualitative Study of Risky Play Among Preschool Children. Doctoral dissertation: Norwegian University of Science and Technology.
Tovey, H. (2010). Playing on the Edge: Perceptions of Risk and Danger in Outdoor Play. In P. Broadhead, J. Howard & E. Wood (eds), Play and Learning in the Early Years. London: Sage.
Tovey, H. (2011). Achieving the balance: Challenge, risk and safety. In J. White (ed), Outdoor Provision in the Early Years. London: Sage.