Let me begin by saying that the safety of children in any play activity is paramount. As responsible adults around the children, we must ensure that they are free from harm of any manner.
When we are talking about risky play here, we must keep in mind that this is about promoting safe, risk-taking activities and adventures that are appropriate to their age and ability. The role of parents and early years educators is two fold: a) to validate whether the activity/adventure is appropriate for the child and b) if they are sure that it is, then help the child learn to stay alert and stay safe all through out the activity/adventure.
The ability to take risks is a life skill that must be taught to every child. There is enough research out there, with evidence, of the benefits of risk-taking activities far outweighing the potential risk of injury or harm.
Controlled risk-taking activities in a group setting help children become more aware of their strengths, overcome their innate fears while observing how their peers are coping with the same situation. Taking risks and succeeding can motivate children to seek further achievements. Failing can also lead to testing new ideas and finding personal capabilities and limits. In this way of repeated action, children learn to persist and build new skills.
At our Early Years Practitioners Training Academy & Research Institute, we train our mentors on how best to introduce safe, risk-taking activities as part of their play activities.
It is important to see risky play from the perspective of the child. Children sometimes outwardly express their emotions during risky play as below:
- Fear: much of the child’s time during the risky play is spent in managing the emotion of fear. One can observe this as the child trying to retreat from the activity or trying to avoid it. Sometimes fear can also be observed when a child acts defiantly, or become defensive or freezes in place. Some lookout for an adult for reassurance.
- Borderline fear:often during play, however enthusiastic the child may be at the beginning of the play, during the course of play, the child may feel out of control, or feel confused about how to proceed next.
- Exhilaration: child feels exhilarated after accomplishing a risky feat, however uncertain they were at the beginning! As a result, they may want to repeatedly engage in the same task in order to experience the same pleasure and exhilaration. One can observe laughing, screaming, smiling, yelling and dancing.
Here are some tips and techniques you can use as parents and educators to help children.
- Rather than just warning children about risk and giving instructions, it helps to have real conversations with children so that they are included in learning and taking decisions. For example, if your child is learning to climb a tree, rather than just saying “be careful”, “hold tight” and so on, engage them in a conversation, talking to them about how falling from height is likely to cause greater harm and injury than just falling while running. Help them choose a tree with low branches, teach them the techniques like ‘rule of three’ where there are always three points of contact while climbing the tree etc. This will help them in providing insights into solving their own problems, recollecting the conversations and remembering the techniques so that they mitigate the risk while playing.
- Introduce risk gradually. For example if you are helping them to teach them how to use a knife, start with a wooden knife to cut play dough. It is essential is to teach them the technique and posture of how to hold the knife and cut safely. As a next stage, introduce a butter knife and perhaps cut a cake. When the child is at an age and ability level enough to hold a sharp knife, introduce that before moving to the stage of using a sharper knife. It is better to have a conversation about sharpness of knife, how it could cut and one might bleed rather than just saying be careful with the knife! Though it is a fact, children wouldn’t know what to do with that statement!
- It is a fact that all children are competent. Acknowledge that all children are natural risk takers. As parents and educators some times we tend to hold some intrinsic biases, for example, boys are more independent and competent and therefore they should be allowed to participate in risk taking activities than girls. It is time that we let go of such biases! The benefits of such play is not just for the children to reap! As adults that care for children, parents and early years educators also reap the rewards of the happy outcomes of such play – a child that is confident, self aware and able to overcome fears!