January 19th, 2021

Childcare Chatter: Have you considered the benefits of risky play?

By Shauna Perrior on January 11, 2020.

As a parent today, we know that things were different during our childhood. We talk about how we watched for the streetlights to come on as a signal that it was time to come inside. Yet the idea of allowing our own children to enjoy this freedom is fraught with fear.

While we have probably heard the words “risky play” before, it can be helpful to understand what elements help comprise healthy and developmentally appropriate risk in children’s play. Early childhood educator and author of “Embracing Rough and Tumble Play,” Mike Huber has us think of risk vs. hazard and says; “hazards are dangers that a child cannot easily see or predict whereas a risk is something that a child can see and can perform an assessment thereof.” Not only is it fun for children to engage in play that might look scary to adults and caregivers but it teaches them much about themselves and their abilities. Children learn self-confidence, risk assessment and management as well as resilience through facing challenges and learning about their own capabilities. Though well intentioned, calling out too many “be carefuls” teaches children that danger is all around them and that they cannot be trusted to make responsible decisions.

Mariana Brussoni is a developmental child psychologist and professor at both the University of British Columbia and BC Children’s Hospital and has been studying for years the benefits of risky play and injury prevention. She asserts that there are six key factors to risky play which include: Heights, speed, dangerous tools, exposure to elements, rough and tumble play and unsupervised play. It is also important to note that she asserts that allowing more risky play actually lowers rates of injury.

It can be challenging to watch your child scale a high hill or structure, run or ride their bike at seemingly breakneck speeds. But if we can remember that when trusted to do so, children will innately tap into their body and assess rather quickly how in or out of control they are. For young children in particular, this might mean that you are nearby but are not hovering and are observing without making comments.

Allowing children dangerous tools such as a real hammer and nails to build with or a vegetable peeler to help prepare dinner is also important in giving the child the opportunity to feel a sense of risk and to gain mastery and confidence over a task. For young children or children unused to this sort of play, having a responsible adult nearby to lay out how to use these tools responsibly and then step away again is critical. Remember, this is about reducing hazards, not eliminating risk.

Rough and tumble play is probably exactly what you think it is – play fighting! It also includes rolling down hills, jumping, somersaults and cartwheels. Unfortunately, these things are all too often discouraged. But, they are also important components of a child’s play and, therefore, social and emotional development. These things teach children boundaries with other children, about comfort zones and about the limits of their own bodies.

The last kind of play is perhaps the most difficult for parents and, that is, unsupervised play. It is this play that often comes into scrutiny in media and by other parents. Children need to have the sense that there is not always an adult lurking around. For older children, this means playing in the neighbourhood alone or with their friends where you may not be able to see them and for younger children this can be as easy as letting them play in the bushes where the usual sight lines are diminished.

As challenging as it can be for us as parents or caregivers to let go of our own fears, it is important that we begin to learn to do so. There is ample evidence to suggest that our children’s physical, emotional and mental well-being depend on us letting go and trusting them. You can learn more about how to start letting go of these fears and how risky play benefits children at https://brussonilab.ca/resources/

We hope you will think about these things when your child is playing at the upcoming nature playground in Central Park. This is going to be an amazing place to experience play! You can also follow the Medicine Hat Early Childhood Coalition on facebook for more information on play and early childhood development. There may be some changes coming to our coalition and its member agencies due loss of funding for the next fiscal year. We will keep you updated in April about any changes.

Shauna Perrior is a coordinator of the Medicine Hat & District Child Care Association (www.mhdcca.com).

The Medicine Hat Early Childhood Coalition thanks our outgoing coordinator, Shauna Perrior for writing this column.

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