Child’s play: how risky activity is vital to learning how to be safe
Everyday acts such as walking, climbing and using water involve assessing acceptable risk
Managing the scrapes and bumps of childhood helps children develop resilience, both emotionally and physically.
There is a particular squeak our sofa makes when little legs pretend the already battered couch is a trampoline or a diving board and the rug is a 50ft swimming pool.
I’ve had to relinquish any fear I’ve had over my five-year-old breaking a limb or knocking her head as she jumps from a height, I’d prefer she didn’t, because there simply isn’t any stopping her.
I say she is fearless, but rather, it’s more that she is determined, and boundaries are not something she recognises as she climbs the furniture. She knows no limits, but if she did, she would break them anyway. The riskier the better.
At five and two years old, both of our daughters have climbed, explored, jumped, foraged, balanced and fallen a hundred-odd times. There have been bruises, grazes, cuts, gashes, plenty of tears, plasters, bandages, cuddles – and of course blood. As of now, there have been no broken bones and only one visit to Temple Street. But I won’t count my chickens yet.
I do my best to give them that bit of freedom to figure out what they are capable of and enjoy the adventures of risky play. But I can’t help those motherly instincts kicking in when I see how their expected trajectory is way off. I can visualise an inevitable crash, bang and wallop considering my level of trust in their ability is far less than their own. So, do I prepare myself to leap and catch, or do I stand back for them to catch themselves before or after they jump?
Carol Duffy, early childhood specialist with Early Childhood Ireland says, in some ways, “risky play”, despite being a widely used term, is problematic in that it places a negative connotation on a wide range of play activities; activities that should not be avoided due to “risk” but embraced to support healthy development, particularly in the early years. In other words, let them jump, explore and test the boundaries of the world around them.
“Risk and risk assessment are a part of life and something children need to embrace in order to grow and develop in mind and body,” says Duffy. “In the early years, we often celebrate risk-taking without realising it. For example, cheers of delight when a baby takes their first steps, when a toddler masters the balance bike, or when a four year old builds a den with heavy or awkward materials. These are all everyday activities that involve elements of acceptable risk.”
On the opposite end of the scale, Duffy reminds us that we may become concerned if a child shows no interest in taking risks, as risk-taking is so important in activating development. “As adults,” she adds, “our primary concern is to ensure children’s safety and wellbeing. Responsible attitudes towards children’s safety and wellbeing is of paramount importance, yet how we can best support children’s safety, development, and wellbeing is something we should discuss.”
As a parent, my natural reaction to risk is to protect. Get off the wall, stop chasing the dog, don’t lift that. But risky play is exciting for most kids who run faster than their legs can carry them or climb higher than they realise. It is still our job to guide and protect them within the boundaries of their development. Both of my children are different, with varying skills, limits and confidence levels. Like a shadow, I watch them explore and test their levels of uncertainty against their assurance.
Duffy suggests that being risk-aware is far healthier than being risk-averse. “A child that feels the capabilities of his or her body, and its limits, is more likely to keep themselves safe,” she says, “than a child who has never learned to trust his or her body or even to recognise risk. For example, a baby learning to walk must endure the risk of falling over in order to become a competent walker. Only by repeatedly climbing the stairs can you learn how to do it. By challenging yourself to take some risk, you are led to the next stage of development whether that is physical, emotional or mental.
“Children who develop risk awareness and self-management skills are better equipped to keep themselves safe. These are skills that will serve them throughout life. Managing the minor scrapes and bumps of childhood helps children develop resilience, both emotionally and physically. Challenge, and its associated risk, are vital for this resilience to develop.”
Element of peril
The element of fun is not contained to sofa jumping for my kids. Take them outdoors and we open up a terrifying element of peril for parents, but a magical fairground of challenges for kids. The outdoors feeds our children with a sensory onslaught that grows their curiosity and enjoyment.
“Children are excited, engaged and educated by the stuff of the earth,” says Duffy, “Their interaction with and manipulation of plants, trees, water, stones, sticks and soil builds both their bodies and their brains. For children, it is all about play and the joy of movement. For us adults, it is about providing them with opportunities, sharing the joy, making memories, and being mindful of the responsibility of keeping them safe while they freely explore.”
For someone like me, who is on edge when all I can see is an impending fall, Duffy says we should start small by embracing the differences in our children and recognising their abilities. “Watch what your child can do,” she says, “and what they are striving to do and help them in a way that suits their dispositions. For example, you would not necessarily put a toddler into a tree, but tree-climbing skills can be developed from earlier interventions. Afford babies lots of play and movement that supports their balance, their upper body strength, and their understanding of their capabilities. This helps to build a strong and capable body and mind for when the time comes that they want to try to climb a tree.”
Remembering that all children are different with varying characteristics, Duffy also reminds us, “some children may never want to climb a tree but may be fascinated by water. With appropriate supervision and discussion, playing with both small and large amounts of water helps children to recognise both the wonder and the dangers of water as an engaging play material.”
At the end of a long, possibly worrying, day of risky outdoor or indoor play, we will see that our children are inherently capable. And if there have been a few moments of tears after tumbles, we can guarantee that they will get up and try again, if not today, then tomorrow.