One of the most important aspects of parenting is keeping your child safe from harm. But a little bit of risk is actually beneficial for your child's development. Though the idea of "risky play" seems counterintuitive, it's actually a great way for your child to learn critical thinking skills!
What is risky play?
Risky play is any activity that allows your child to experience some level of risk. This can include things like playing in the rain, climbing trees, and riding their bikes. This play offers thrill and excitement and invites children to test their limits and expand their comfort zones. At an age when their brains are making new connections every day, navigating and assessing risk is a great skill to incorporate early.
Risky play is important for young children because it helps them learn about risks and consequences and helps them develop their problem-solving skills, self-confidence, and creativity.
It's important to note that not all risk is good risk! A safe environment where your child never experiences any risk would be very limiting for their development, but it's important to step in before they're in actual danger.
Why is risky play important for child development?
The benefits of risky play for children go beyond just teaching them how to handle risks responsibly. Risky play actually helps children learn key skills such as problem solving, critical thinking, and persistence.
Risky play helps children learn about their environment and the risks that are associated with it. It also helps them develop problem-solving skills and a sense of confidence. In addition, risky play can lead to the development of creativity and new ideas. They learn how to take care of themselves and manage their own emotions, as well as how to cooperate with others.
Example of risky play: Playing in the rain
When it's rainy outside, you might find yourself arguing with your child about putting on their boots or a raincoat. Letting them go play as they desire is a great way for them to learn the natural consequences you already know as an adult - soggy socks and clothes, and feeling chilly.
When your child is playing in the rain, they are having fun at first, but soon they also learn how water can cause them discomfort. Naturally, they'll start to think about how to avoid getting wet, which gives you a great way to bring up their boots and raincoat the next time they want to play. They'll learn how to avoid that negative consequence, but it sticks better after experiencing it rather than being told! This type of learning is critical for your child's development because it teaches them how to think critically and solve problems.
Your child may also use this risky play to start overcoming their fears of rain or water. This kind of confidence building can help build a strong foundation for later life.
How can you incorporate risk into your child's play?
There is no one perfect way to incorporate risk into your child's play. Introducing them to new situations and settings, like a park or local hiking trail, can be a great way to let them explore. According to Outside Play, there are multiple types of risky play: play at heights, play at speed, play with dangerous tools, play with dangerous elements, play with a chance of getting lost, and rough and tumble play.
To incorporate play at heights, your child may enjoy climbing trees, playground equipment, or large rocks on the nature trail. You can also play at heights on a swing set by pushing them higher!
To play at speed, your child might ride their bike down a hill at fast speeds, or you could spin them on playground equipment.
Play with dangerous tools could include using a hammer or saw (if age appropriate), or using a knife to chop veggies with you in the kitchen. Always supervise play with tools!
Play with dangerous elements includes fire or water. We already discussed playing in the rain, but swimming lessons could also be a great risky play option, with a trained instructor and a lifeguard of course. We also recently talked about fire in our fire safety lessons, so your child might feel ready to help build a campfire or help you cook on a gas stove.
Play with a chance of getting lost doesn't have to mean that children can roam the neighborhood without an adult - kids get the benefit of this "risk" even if their parents can see them hiding and pretending to be lost. A robust game of hide-and-seek is a great way to get children used to being "lost" and exploring the emotions that come with the territory.
Rough and tumble play is just what it sounds like. Children often play-fight and wrestle, which engages their need for risky play and helps them gain a sense of their body's balance.
Risky play tips for worried parents
The most important thing is to not panic! Remember when your child was learning to walk: falling and getting back up is a critical part of the process. If your child looks a bit stuck, they'll often find a way out of their predicament on their own with a little critical thinking. Pause for a moment (or a few moments) before intervening to give your child a chance to problem solve.
Be sure to talk about safety and risk with your child in an age-appropriate way, and encourage them to take risks in a safe and responsible way. For example, if you notice a potential danger (say, a rose bush with sharp thorns), you can look at the bush together and ask them what they think it would take to stay safe near it.