A moment to ponder Risk Taking from award winning Education Leader: Claire MacDonald

The ultimate calculated risk management activity, rock climbing.

My favourite childhood memories are of doing things like climbing trees much higher than may be considered ‘safe’, taking my hands off the handlebars for short bursts whilst riding my bike, or using my dolls pram as transportation down the very steep hill on the road at the back of my home.

By far my most memorable was after climbing through a weathered window and up onto the ledge of a wooden A-frame play structure in the backyard where recall taking the time to adjust my grocery bag parachute that wrapped snugly around my shoulders. I was noticeably cautious and it took a few encouraging shouts from below to help build sufficient courage to make the leap. The plastic grocery bag flapped loudly as the ground approached, much more rapidly than expected! After all, the parachute should have slowed me down right?

I lived to tell the tale and vividly remember making that leap many more times. Unbeknownst to me at the time, these types of risks and others which occurred during play time as a youth, were the ultimate training for risk management as an adult. Modern research has revealed these experiences to be important to developing healthy risk taking along with many other benefits that risky play has on ALL children’s development. The essence of risky play is a child’s attempt to manage perceived danger in an environment with the reward of excitement, achievement and exhilaration. Did all of this Iead me to turn into an adrenaline seeking adult? Far from it; the thought of looking out over the balcony of a city sky scraper still reduces me to tears in my 40’s! Most of us, as we reflect on our own childhoods, will find that our play as children involved challenges and risk and modelling these foundations for the rest of our lives. But why do children actively seek opportunities for challenge and risk taking in their play as the very notion seems to go against or instincts for survival…?

What is risky play?

Before we go any further we need to identify what is meant by ‘Risky Play’.

Risky play can be defined as a thrilling and exciting activity that involves a risk of physical injury, and play that provides opportunities for challenge, testing limits, exploring boundaries and learning about safety and injury risk.

Risk and challenging play in practice

Early Education and Care Services, implement learning opportunities such as;

  • Educator supervised, woodwork benches with real tools and accessories such as hammers, nails and saw
  • Loose parts play – providing children with items such as plastic pipes, milk crates, large reels, ropes, pulleys, wooden boxes, sticks, logs etc.
  • Fire pits where children cook damper under the supervision of our educators and learn about the value of fire and the respect of its power must always be remembered
  • Allowing children opportunity to climb, jump and challenge their unique individual physical skills
  • Bush and beach excursions where children and educators explore the wonderful resources nature and the natural world provides
  • Build their own dens
  • Supporting children to problem solve, make decisions and be independent learners
  • Creates opportunities for planned and experimental exploring, imaging and creating

The benefits of risky play

The Early Years Framework (EYLF) and My time, Our Place (MTOP) guiding documents also endorse the benefits of risky play for children. The ‘cotton wool’ approach can result in over-restrictive limitations on children’s right to play, experiment, explore, and to extend themselves within a stimulating, yet safe environment.

…Risk-taking is an essential part of children’s play. Managing that risk is the key to providing opportunities that support growth and development and keep children safe from unreasonable risk and injury. The balancing of these two is vital for our children’s health and development.  Everyday life is full of risks and challenges and children need opportunities to develop the skills associated with managing risk and making informed judgements about risks from a very young age…

“Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood”… Fred Rogers


Risky play helps to develop important life skill learning such as;

  • Building resilience and persistence
  • Balance and coordination
  • Awareness of the capabilities and limits of their own bodies
  • The ability to assess and make judgement about risk Develop skills in negotiating the environment (including risks);
  • Learn how to use equipment safely and for its designed purpose;
  • Develop coordination and orientation skills;
  • Learn about the consequences (positive/negative) of risk taking
  • Handling tools safely and with purpose
  • Understanding consequence to action
  • Confidence and independence
  • Resourcefulness
  • Creativity and inventiveness
  • Curiosity and wonder
  • Problem solving
  • Development of self-confidence and well-being

Each child is unique and so the level of risk and challenge they seek will also vary, yet most children will actively seek risk and challenge in play as they explore the world around them and their own physical abilities. Children both need and want to take risks in order to explore their limits, venture into new experiences and for their development. Any injury is distressing for children and those who care for them, however the experience of minor injuries is a universal part of childhood and has a positive role in child development. There is a huge difference between putting a child at risk and allowing a child to take risks.

Providing children with opportunities to participate in risky and challenging play in a safe learning environment, presents opportunity for the development of important life skill learning such as making choices, problem solving, measured risk taking, and navigating their way socially and emotionally in group situations. These skills will be important throughout life, particularly in vulnerable stages such as their teenage years, so let’s send them out prepared!