Risky play is worth the risk

When you think of ‘risk’ in play what do you think about? What is your initial response? Do you immediately recoil and take a step back? Do you have a considered pause? Do you say ‘yes please!’. 

For children an element of risk in day to day life is important. They establish their own ground rules and boundaries from a young age, with some grasping more risky play and learning earlier than others. There is no right age to learn, as each child is unique, and develops at their own pace. 

For young children learning to stand and crawl is risky. Their confidence grows as their new learning experiences blossoms. They then start to walk, jump, stand on one leg, run, do cartwheels and climb. This risk in trying new things brings with it confidence and independence. 

What is considered risky play by one parent is not necessarily considered risky play by another parent. One parent might view climbing a certain tree in the common too risky, and suggest their child rather play on a fallen log, and another parent not bat an eyelid if their child excitedly clambers up that very same tree. 

Much of this has to do with our upbringing and what we consider to be a risk. If you think of your childhood, did you jump into puddles (not knowing the true depth) or walk cautiously around them? Did you swim in the local river or did you watch from the bank as others swam? There is no right and wrong, we are all different. What we have experienced as a child is often relayed onto what we allow our own child to experience. Combine this with a partner’s possible differing upbringing, and this allows for some interesting conversations. 

How does risky play benefit children? Risky play can be inside or outside, it’s most oftentimes outside, and this is in itself a positive. Children need fresh air and they need exercise. Even when the autumn leaves are falling and the chill has settled upon us, they need to be outside playing as usual, getting messy, strengthening their lungs and having fun. 

Even when under the supervisory eye of a parent or carer, a child needs to know they have a certain amount of freedom in their play. Not only is this physically beneficial for them but they gain more independence, resilience and dexterity in they play as they extend their play limits. They grow bolder and more assertive. 

And if they’re doing this as a child, viewing their environment as an exciting and unpredictable area of exploration and discovery, this enthusiasm for adventure and challenge will follow them through school and into adulthood. They might be a budding entrepreneur in the making, who is not afraid of risk-taking in life and business, as they have experienced it growing up. They will know that sometimes they might fail and other times they will succeed, but the learning involved makes the journey of risk taking, worthwhile. 

Let them explore. Let them discover. Let them partake in risky play!


Jennifer McQuillan is a thrice Outstanding ex childminder, who founded an award winning SW London preschool nursery. She is passionate about early years childcare and education, with a special leaning toward special needs and disabilities. She is the Africa Representative for the Preschool Learning Alliance children's charity. Now based in South Africa, she runs Imbali Early Years Consultancy and is involved in a variety of education-based projects.