24th August 2022 All Posts Insights Expert Advice

The Importance of Risky Play

For young children to learn to understand the concept of risk and danger, they must first be exposed to ‘risky’ experiences and opportunities to explore these concepts safely to learn essential skills that will allow them to risk assess, identify risks and challenges in their play and learning. 

Risky play is  defined as a “thrilling and exciting activity that involves a risk of physical injury, and play that provides opportunities for challenge, testing limits, exploring boundaries and learning about injury risk” (Sandseter (2007; Little & Wyver, 2008)

When supported by confident adults, children should be encouraged to explore taking risks within ‘controlled’ parameters, whereby they notice the risk, identify it, explore it, manage it and navigate it independently whilst showing some awareness and understanding of the potential dangers whilst being observed and supported by a knowledgeable adult. 

Despite endless research and theories evolving over the years championing ‘risky play’ and the incredible benefits these types of experiences have upon children’s overall learning and development, there is still a significant amount of fear surrounding this area of children’s play and learning as a part of every-day pedagogy. 

For many, it is a practitioner or leader’s own fears that impact upon the ‘risky’ opportunities they provide or facilitate within their setting, past experience or their own personal experiences with a certain type of play or activity that drives their reluctance or anxiety to effectively support children to explore this risk and challenge their own abilities in this way. Whilst for others, leaders and owners specifically, the ‘red tape’ and legal repercussions of injury, risk or parental complaints as a result of these experiences are too much of a financial and business risk to encourage. 

The whole concept of ‘risky play’ is that children are exposed to risk and opportunities that could harm or hurt them in some way, but if we as practitioners or as a setting do not expose or encourage children in engaging with risky experiences and allow them to explore real, first-hand experiences like these, how will they ever learn to manage them effectively. 

There is also a wider belief across the sector that there is an age-limit on risky play opportunities and children need to reach a certain age before we can introduce them to this type of play experience. However, no child is ‘too young’ to be exposed to real and risky experiences and as a result even the very youngest children, often the under twos, should all have the opportunity to experience risky play in some way, whether that be using real tools, being exposed to real fires and learning to climb on difficult terrain as soon as they are physically and cognitively ready to do so.

The benefits of risky play far outweigh the potential risk of physical harm for young children. This type of play experience and ‘safe’ exposure to risk allows children to explore risky concepts and learn to assess and manage them independently whilst simultaneously developing essential life skills such as building fires, using tools to construct and navigating tricky physical obstacles. In addition to this, children can develop and practice their fine motor skills as they use tools as well as developing gross motor skills as they navigate complex physical challenges and experiences too. 

Many children will not get to explore this concept until they are much older (in school or beyond) and so this is why it is vital as early years practitioners and educators that we endorse the benefits of this type of play for children to learn these essential life-skills at the earliest opportunities which will have the significant benefit of their growth, learning and development for subsequent years thereafter. 

Witnessing first-hand the incredible benefits risky play opportunities have on the children enables practitioners to observe learning and development in children that they would never have the opportunity to witness without these opportunities being encouraged and provided within the provision; the problem-solving, resilience, teamwork and critical thinking as a result of risky play opportunities truly are incredible skills to witness in children so young and experiences such as these have been proven to produce confident and resilient children with a thirst for adventure and exploration, who are equipped with the necessary skills to do so in an independent, safe and confident manner, which is why risky play should be a fundamental part of the curriculum and every child should have access to these types of experiences to reap the endless benefits that far outweigh any potential risks.

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About the Author

Chloe is a board Trustee at Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years (PACEY) and an OFSTED registered childminder. Chloe has 8 years of experience post-qualifying, and came from a nursery background before becoming a home-based childcarer at Pebbles Childcare. Chloe is a successful writer, contributing to Nursery World, EYE, Nursery Management Today and ABC magazine, as well as managing the Pebbles Childcare Blog.