Risky Play

Thursday 10 Oct 2019

The team from Everything Outside worked swiftly and meticulously over the term break, and the opening of our new adventure playground is now imminent. The playground features a quiet space for retreat and reflection, as well as spaces for physical challenge. Students will scale lofty towers and consider the various alternatives available for them to descend. They will clamber up and through netting tunnels in order to mount mid-air swings, they will negotiate a timber-and-ropes parkour course, and they will leap across jumping rocks made of … well, rocks.

Does this playground come with an element of risk? Yes, it does.

Risky play is an essential ingredient in every person’s childhood. Developmental psychologist Associate Professor Mariana Brussoni explains that, through risky play, children figure out ‘how the world works and how their body works’. They experiment. They assess a situation in line with what they intuitively know their body needs, and seek out the sensory input their neurological system requires.

Often, as adults, our own fears get in the way of letting our children undergo experiences that nurture creativity, tenacity, courage, self-confidence, self-regulation, resilience and executive function. We often see a potential risk and pull children away from it with intention to protect, but in the process we are robbing children of the opportunity to assess a situation for themselves and to examine how the situation aligns with their own limits.

Researcher and writer, Elizabeth Williams, reports that:

People nowadays have started looking at the ‘safety-first’ rule a bit too literally. In fact, people can go so far as to practically insulate children from any kind of risk. Being careful is one thing, but being too careful is harmful for your child.

… Taking risks means increasing your maturity and awareness of the possible outcomes in the future. Children who are isolated from this kind of experience tend to grow into people with low self-esteem.

The reality is, children know their own limits. When we step back and allow children to engage in risky play, they innately stretch themselves, push boundaries, explore further, learn to assess risk for themselves and learn to recover quickly from setbacks. These are attributes we want our students to develop in order to flourish in adulthood.

Co-author of 'The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting up a Generation for Failure', social psychologist Professor Jonathan Haidt writes:

When you deprive children of [risky] play, you make them vulnerable to anxiety and depression because they fail to develop basic skills of self regulation and interaction that will make them successful in life.

Author of 'Free to Learn', psychologist and Research Professor Peter Gray writes:

We deprive children of free, risky play, ostensibly to protect them from danger, but in the process we set them up for mental breakdowns. Children are designed by nature to teach themselves emotional resilience by playing in risky, emotion-inducing ways. In the long run, we endanger them far more by preventing such play than by allowing it. And, we deprive them of fun.

Children are highly motivated to play in risky ways, but they are also very good at knowing their own capacities and avoiding risks they are not ready to take, either physically or emotionally. Our children know far better than we do what they are ready for. Children know how to dose themselves with just the right amount of fear, for them, and for that knowledge to operate they must be in charge of their own play.

Risky play not only benefits children psychologically; it also comes with bodily benefits beyond the obvious physical activity advantages. It’s well documented that risky play can reduce the likelihood of injury because children who engage in risky play build spatial awareness, improve gross motor skills, strengthen their core, bolster ankle strength and develop emotional fortitude.

One of the best things we can do for our children is to provide freedom and space for risky play.

[Sidebar: Our new adventure playground was designed by a qualified playground auditor and, of course, all elements of the playground adhere to regulations. The playground will be adequately supervised, and students will not be permitted to use the equipment without staff supervision.]

- Jane Mueller, Principal