The importance of teaching children 'Risky Play' and learning to trust themselves

The increasing number of kids stuck indoors in front of screens, greatly reduces the time that children have to play away from direct adult supervision

In our quest to give our children the richest learning experiences, at the earliest possible ages, with endless after-school activities, play dates and organised schedules, we have taken the time to play on their own out of the equation. The increasing number of children stuck indoors in front of screens, on tablets, computers and game consoles, leading ever more sedentary lives, greatly reduces the time that children have to play away from direct adult supervision and parental control. Children need time to enjoy free play, a childhood that includes puddles, splashing, jumping, rolling, climbing, sticks and mud where they can learn how to manage and take risks in their lives. We are becoming an increasingly risk averse society, bubble wrapping our children and not allowing them to learn about risk safely and their own ability to handle and respond to it. 
Risky play is defined as a thrilling and exciting activity that provides opportunities for children to learn about challenge, test limits, explore boundaries and learn about risk of possible injury: What happens if I do this? All play involves an element of risk, such as sliding, climbing trees, rough and tumble and by feeding children’s natural curiosity and innate need to explore with reasonable risks prevents them from finding greater unmanaged risks for themselves. 
As adults, we can help children learn to manage risks for themselves and understand safety and don’t forget that children will fall down, scratch themselves and get bumps and bruises — this is not always a bad thing but part of an active and fun childhood. 
Obviously a balance needs to be struck and no one is advocating putting children in overtly dangerous situations, but there are so many opportunities for children to learn about risk safely. It’s more about allowing them to have a bit of excitement and adventure in a controlled way. The restrictions put on children’s play are often based on the adult’s perception of what is dangerous rather than giving the children the freedom to judge situations and test themselves and to understand cause and effect. 
A good start is by limiting screen time, trying to be less over protective and introducing boundless opportunities for children to learn about risk through play. Go back to basics and use the natural resources of the great outdoors. 
  • Set up an adventure course in the back gar¬den with platforms, tunnels, jumps, balancing benches and beams, tyres and swings. 
  • Let your child climb trees: choose trees that are an appropriate height for your child’s abil¬ity and see how high they can go. Learning to navigate the branches gives a real sense of adrenaline and then achievement. Your child’s inner instinct will let them know when they have climbed high enough and they will want to get back down. 
  • Encourage your children to build dens and use sticks to write in the mud – your child’s imagination will flow as their hut will become a castle or a dungeon, their hideout away from adults. 
  • Learning to ride a bike and negotiating the world on skates (especially going downhill!), are both great for building your child’s physical confidence in their own abilities. Also, simply climbing a wall and jumping off it will increase their awareness of balance, height, distance and they can make judgement calls and test their own boundaries at the same time. 
  • For younger children, create a digging area in the garden and allow them to explore the earth, to dig for worms and bugs, and plant herbs creating smelling pots and then make perfume by grind¬ing them together. They will also love puddles, watering plants and collecting rain water from the water butt to make mud pies. 
  • Go to the mountains and just walk and run — let your children roll down hills and it’s even more fun in the snow in winter on the back of a toboggan. 
Remember, there is no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothes, so in¬vest in a raincoat or wet gear, wellingtons, hats and gloves and get your children outdoors to play and learn about cause and effect and risk safely.
  • Have a separate area in your own back garden so that babies and toddlers can crawl and explore safely in their own space. 
  • Define areas for playing chase, ball games, swings etc for older children. 
  • When in the park, quickly scan and check the immediate area for any potential risks, like broken glass or nails and remove them. 
  • Language is important. Don’t create a fear in your child or pass on yours. Talk to them about risk and injury — ask open questions like, what do you think might happen if you jump off a wall that is very high? 
  • Encourage them to make their own risk assessments and to think about the possible consequences of their actions. 
  • Help your child to understand risk, danger and injury and give appropriate examples, like using sticks as swords could hurt others. 
  • Introduce the environment and discuss the possible consequences of misusing it and let the child determine the risk. 
  • When tree-climbing, if your child is too anxious to balance on a high branch, suggest starting on a lower branch to develop their confidence.
Written by Dearbhala Cox Giffin- Early learning & development expert with Family Friendly HQ.
Dearbhala is Director of Childcare with Giraffe Childcare

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