Risk-taking is an important ingredient in the optimal early childhood recipe, but we need to expand our definition of risky play to encompass more than climbing trees and knocking nails in with hammers.

Risky play also involves taking emotional risks, delving into unfamiliar situations and facing social challenges that build emotional resilience. We explore the benefits of all types of risky play, how we can change our mindset around risky play, and how we can support children to take appropriate risks." />

By CELA on 14 Oct, 2022

By restricting risk in a child’s play environment, we remove the possibility for adventure, challenges for the mind, body and spirit, and the development of that all-important quality: resilience. 

When thinking about notions of traditional risky play, we need to consider the difference between risks and hazards. Early childhood educator Deb Curtis says in her article `What's the Risk of No Risk?’: 

“A risk is something that is possible to negotiate and may be appropriate for particular situations and children. A hazard is something that is inherently dangerous and needs to be remedied, such as a climbing structure with sharp edges or loose boards that could seriously injure children if they play on it.” 

Obviously, hazards need to be removed in any environment children play in; however, removing items that could be used for risky play, such as objects to climb on, sticks, ropes and/or tools and equipment, does children a disservice. 

Putting a spotlight on the benefits of social and emotional risk 

A review of ECE research literature (eg Little, Wyver, & Gibson, 2015; Sandseter, 2009), magazines and professional development offerings undertaken by Mandy Cooke during her research study on risk-taking in early childhood education suggested that many people view risk-taking in ECE as something that: 

1. Children do 

2. Takes place outdoors 

3. Is physical and play-like in nature. 

(Rattler 130, March 2020, Community Early Learning Australia) 

Early learning settings also offer rich possibilities for children to take social and emotional risks, which can be taken during play. While outgoing children may be naturally inclined to take the emotional risks of joining in games with new children, offering opinions, or reaching out to make a new friend, those who are hesitant to do so may benefit from environments that encourage them to take these steps. 

Facing social-emotional risks supports the development of self-confidence and may make children more resourceful and capable in the face of challenges. 

Children need to learn what they are capable of by challenging themselves and risking injuries—both physical and emotional. If they do not face risks in early childhood through various aspects of play, how can they learn to manage risk in other areas of their lives?  

The Early Years Learning Framework supports the notion of risk-taking in early childhood, espousing the positive experiences and interactions provided by outdoor learning spaces and natural environments for play: “These spaces invite open-ended interactions, spontaneity, risk-taking, exploration, discovery and connection with nature.”  

The EYLF also focuses on the benefits of social-emotional risk-taking, noting that children become strong in their social and emotional well-being when they “make choices, accept challenges, take considered risks, manage change and cope with frustrations and the unexpected.” 

How educators can support children taking risks during play 

With so many benefits on offer when facing and managing risks in early childhood, how can we, as educators, create opportunities for children to take these types of risks? 

  • Teach children the skills they need to face risks and challenges safely, then let them explore in their own time at their own pace.  

  • Be there to encourage and support, when necessary, and create a rich, engaging and challenging environment full of opportunities for discovery. 

  • Use positive language: In an Amplify! article on safe stick play, author and award-winning teacher Renee Irving-Lee says, “Positive words make children feel empowered. We can change our language…to ensure they are confident, responsible, and safe citizens of the playground…we can tell them what they CAN do instead of what they CAN’T do.”  

  • Step back and allow children to explore their world, discover things for themselves, face challenges, make mistakes and learn how to recover from them independently.  

  • Ensure that the space is free of hazards.

When thinking about emotionally and socially risky play, here are some ideas for support: 

  • Create opportunities for different groups of children to meet each other and interact such as discos. 

  • Participate in community activities, offering children the chance to explore and play in new and unfamiliar environments. 

  • Encourage public speaking by providing opportunities for children to share their stories and experiences in front of the group or while at play in situations such as performances and play-acting. 

Changing the risky play mindset 

To help you get into a mindset that enables you to rethink risky play, consider your responses to the following questions: 

  • How are the lives of children different today from when you were a child? Why do you think that is the case?  

  • How is the world different today from what it was 20 years ago, and what implication does this have for children?  

  • What challenges and adventures do you feel children today are missing out on? How is this affecting them?  

  • How do your colleagues' attitudes towards risky play differ from your own? 

Giving children agency in risky play can improve self-esteem and joy 

We must learn to trust a child’s instincts during play and give them agency in their decision-making. In this way, children are empowered to take risks and face challenges. Some children may feel frustrated when they are feeling powerless and without control, which can lead to feelings of anger—empowering children can improve feelings of joy, self-esteem and confidence. 

In her article on trusting children during play, Pedagogical Leader Karla Wintle says: 

“…children don’t necessarily need guidance during play; at least not as much as we think they do… Instead, children are guided by their intelligence, a powerful imagination and an innate ‘knowing’ of what to do, where to explore and how to experiment exactly the way they need to… 

“What would happen if we were just in the moment with children and in awe of their play rather than tracking their play by outcomes? What if children just need authenticity, nature and time? Maybe children just need to be trusted to learn naturally through play.” 

Deb Curtis agrees, saying: “The more I spend my days with these very young people, the more I have changed my view of them. I have discovered that children usually pursue only the challenges that are within their abilities, using caution and remarkable problem-solving strategies. 

“There is great reward in watching children’s unwavering determination and seeing their elated faces when they accomplish something they have worked so hard on.” 

Did you know that increasing opportunities for risky play can actually reduce injuries? 

CELA guest presenter and playground designer Lukas Ritson of Wearthy is a firm believer in the benefits of increasing opportunities for children to take risks in playgrounds. In fact, an early education and care centre in Brisbane installed Ritson's towering forts and climbing walls last year and subsequently reported a 43% reduction in reported injuries.

Co-centre director Lily Barker told ABC News that the team had to learn a new set of skills, "to pause and hang back while the children navigated their new grounds."

"I think we are auto-tuned in this profession, not to stop children from taking risks, but to stop them from getting hurt," Lily said in the article. "Very quickly we saw that the children were so much more capable than what we thought."

Further reading on this topic:

Daycare centres are exposing children to risky play, and there are unexpected results by Kym Agius, ABC News

5 steps to safe stick play by Renee Irving Lee via CELA's Amplify! blog

Risky play is not a category—It's what children do by Marc Armitage

The importance of risky play by Anne Rodgers

Car park transformed into Anji Play inspired play space by CELA's Amplify! blog

CELA professional development relating to this topic




About CELA

Community Early Learning Australia is a not for profit organisation with a focus on amplifying the value of early learning for every child across Australia - representing our members and uniting our sector as a force for quality education and care.

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