The Great Outdoors: Supporting Children in Risky Play

Professional Learning Facilitator, Jennifer Zook, shares her insights as a mother and early childhood professional on the importance of trusting young children to take healthy risks.

The Great Outdoors: Supporting Children in Risky Play

Risky play, the type of play where a child tests boundaries and bravely tries new things, can be the highlight of childhood for many children. My boys, for instance, love racing mountain bikes. While I enjoy seeing the excitement in their eyes when they race, I find myself wanting to shout, “Be careful!” or hide my eyes at times. Why do we as adults often respond this way when our children take risks? Why do I find myself wanting to control the movements, the learning opportunities, and the skill development of my children?  I know better!  When I ask myself, “What’s the worst thing that could happen?” The answer is usually just a little skinned up elbow and possibly a Band-Aid.  The more I learn and the more children I watch grow, I realize what a disservice I have done! In reflecting on why I respond this way, I realize that it is most often out of fear.  There have even been times with my own children that I believe I made them more tentative or afraid to take risks.  Ouch! What adult fears might you be placing on your children or the children you influence each day?

Maybe I can blame it on the term, “risky behavior”. Through research on child development, I have realized what an important role that risky play plays (no pun intended) for children. But, it is easy to imagine being judged by others if we embrace the idea.  I can see myself talking to other parents, explaining that I want my children to engage in risky play. Then I imagine their shocked expressions, and their quick decision to help their children find new friends!  “But wait,” I imaging yelling as they turn their backs and walk away, “It’s not what you think!” 

The truth is, this is about children finding the limits of their own capabilities and providing opportunities and space for them to progress.  Taking risks allow children to feel in control of their actions and learning. It also helps children learn about boundaries in a safe and secure environment where more experienced adults can offer support. Through risky play, children learn motor skills such as jumping, running, balance, and coordination. They get to practice persistence, problem-solving, and important social skills, and they walk away with increased confidence and self-regulation. What amazing benefits!

How can we support and encourage the children in our care to so they gain confidence and have the courage to try new things? We can begin with the play spaces we offer them. We can ensure that they match children’s interests and needs. We can provide opportunities for play that are engaging and developmentally appropriate.  We can be available to explore with children, listen and respond to their questions, and discuss the things that interest them. We can make sure they get plenty of time outdoors. While we know that young children need supervision both indoors and outdoors, we can still give them the freedom to manage their own play and take healthy risks.

I encourage you to support healthy risk taking as the little people in your world are learning how to navigate the world around them. Speaking from experience, getting good at safely navigating risk is much better learned at an early age than it is as teenagers!


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