Inclusive Play Community Series: Risky Play
Author: Chad Kennedy, Landscape Architect, ASLA
After climbing through a weathered window and up onto the ledge of a wooden A-frame play structure in the backyard, I took a moment to adjusted my ingenious (but highly ineffective) grocery bag parachute snuggly against my shoulders. The mere 7' drop was no different to my eight year old mind and eyes than that of a fifty foot drop. Noticeably cautious, a few encouraging shouts from below were necessary 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, during my play time as a youth were the ultimate training for risk management as an adult. Modern research has revealed this to be the case in most situations along with many other benefits that risky play has on ALL children's development. Risky play is universal and observed in all demographics of children filling an innate developmental need not met any other way. 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.
The Benefits of Risky Play: Risk in the playground is essential for children's growth, creating challenges which allow children opportunities to succeed and/or fail based on individual reasoning and choices helping them to learn risk management. Hazards, on the other hand, are items or situations that a child is not expected to comprehend, see or foresee. (Read more about risk vs. hazard.) Risky play has been shown to be beneficial to children's development by helping them cope with stressful situations, learn how to follow-through, improve social interaction skills, increase creativity, learn about human mortality, assist in understanding their limitations, recognize areas for improvement and help form positive, pro-active attitudes.1 Other benefits also include improved motor skills and cognitive understanding of the environment.3 The lack of risk in the play environment could lead to children who are "risk-averse", never having learned how to effectively manage everyday situations, or children who seek out dangerous or hazardous locations to experience thrill. Mental health professionals also argue that the lack of risk in play can lead to a lack of resilience and ultimately mental health, resulting in the need for professional intervention.1 Arguments by advocates for risky play are quite convincing, some even suggest that risky play is a product of evolution and natural selection, but this has no bearing on why the children themselves choose every day to engage in this form of play.
Risky Play from the Child's Perspective: It is common to see risky play occur in scenarios where the children's skills exceed the opportunities afforded to them in the play space.5 This can manifest itself in a child using equipment in ways that are not intended, jumping from high places, climbing structures or trees and mock-aggression. One study showed that the most common and preferred form of risky play by children was climbing. It didn't really matter what was climbed, trees, poles, rocks, playground climbers, hills or anything else, as long as the opportunity to climb was there. Second to climbing, children also enjoyed and preferred jumping from elevated locations over other forms of play.5 The degree to which children are willing to take risks, however, varies greatly. Each child constantly manages their personal feelings of fear versus anticipated enjoyment and makes a choice. This assessment period ranges from seconds to minutes depending on the child, as some jump right into activities while others hesitate or eventually retreat. Ultimately children choose whether or not to engage in risky play based on if the reward is enough to outweigh the risk. It should be noted that children with disabilities are no different than other children in this regard. They benefit from risky play as well and should not be denied the opportunity by overly protective care givers. Socially inclusive play spaces in particular should provide opportunities for children to manage risk. Below are descriptions of how children outwardly express their emotions during risky play:
Fear: Much of a child's time during play is spent managing the emotion of fear. This emotion can be recognized primarily by the avoidance of or retreat from an activity. Still, other expressions of fear can be observed when a child acts defiantly, freezes in place, becomes defensive or timid, or solicits help from an adult.3 This is a normal, healthy emotion which all children experience at some level and should learn to manage while they are young.
Exhilaration: Exhilaration is the reward the child feels after having accomplished a risky feat that they may have been unsure about in the beginning. Children's experiences during risky play border on euphoric; hence they will tend to engage in the same action repetitively in order to re-experience the original pleasure and excitement.4 This emotion is commonly expressed through laughing, smiling, screaming, yelling, dancing and engaging in vestibular oriented play.3
Borderline Fear: Often during play, children will feel out of control or be involved in an unpredictable situation and will tend to be unsure, maybe even confused of the emotions they are feeling. Are they scared or exhilarated... or both?3 It is during these times that children may quickly experience fear followed by exhilaration and vice versa as noticeable when a child suddenly stalls or becomes hesitant during play.
Categories of Risky Play: Through interviews and studies of several children's programs in Norway, risky play has been categorized (by the risk involved) into six main types of risk.2 Each of these may not be found in every play environment. If they are not, children will instinctively attempt to find ways of experiencing them. A brief listing of them is as follows:
- Great Heights - Climbing, jumping, balancing, hanging
- High Speed - Swinging, sliding, running, bikes and skating
- Dangerous Tools - Cutting, poking, whipping, sawing, lashing, tying
- Dangerous Elements - Elevation change, water, fire
- Mock-Aggression - Wrestling, fencing, play fighting
- Disappearing / Getting Lost - Exploring, unknown environments
The research is quite clear on the benefits of risky play. The task we face as a society now is to determine how to avoid over sanitation of play environments, minimize regulations, and give children space to explore and experience, while providing for safe recreation free of hazards that could result in serious injury or death. The generations before us understood that accidents happen and that it wasn't always a bad thing. My fearless leaps from roof tops, ledges and trees (with and without home-made parachutes) didn't always end well. I had my share of bumps, bruises and even a broken arm. These experiences, however, served me well during my early development and continually as an adult and parent as well.
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