What comes to mind when you hear the word ‘risk’?
We always strive to minimise risk for children, for example, wearing a helmet when cycling or wearing knee-pads and elbow-pads when skating, to prevent the risk of cuts, grazes and bruises. We try to protect children from external risks of activities such as climbing, jumping from heights or running by reminding them to ‘be careful’, ‘watch out’ or ‘mind out’; but an element of risk, particularly in play, is an essential skill for children to develop resilience and the ability to self-monitor risks in their future, or in their learning.
In her article on risky-play, Sandseter summarises research that ‘Children are naturally curious and excitement seeking, through explorative and risky play they become familiar with their environment and its possibilities and boundaries, and they find out what is dangerous and how to handle the risks they come across (Adams, 2001; Apter, 2007; S. J. Smith, 1998; SuttonSmith, 1997)’.
She is not saying that children should not wear helmets or have their hand held when crossing a road, but rather, when they are in a playground- be it a natural forest or a school garden- that they should be given the space to explore to climb, to jump, to take part in rough and tumble play and to chase. Children seek out these behaviours because they are new and exciting and they develop an understanding of the environment around them.
By being exposed to the freedom to climb, jump and swing, children develop their own sense of risk, for example, a child that climbs a tree and needs help to climb down, is unlikely to climb as high the following time, instead choosing to climb repeatedly to the point that they can reach comfortably, knowing that they can safely make it to that height and thus get to enjoy the sense of achievement and exhilaration that comes from climbing.
Sandseter then goes on to discuss the benefits of risky play in nature through various research. She claims that research has ‘ revealed that children engaging in challenging play in nature areas show improved motor skills and spatial skills (Fiskum, 2004; Fjørtoft, 2000; Grahn, Mårtensson, Lindblad, Nilsson, & Ekman, 1997)’. Improved motor skills refers to the ability to control their hands and arms, for example, with handwriting, throwing, catching, painting and drawing, an especially important skill in young children. Improved spatial skills refers to the ability to visualise space and relationships between objects around children, for example being able to run at speed through the garden and not bump into other children or objects. These skills are vital to develop at an early age as they feed into later life skills such as sports games, writing and even driving!
This element of risk-taking in play can be seen in other areas of learning too. For example in maths, given the choice of an easier maths challenge, or a harder maths challenge, some children may choose to eliminate the risk of failure by going for the easier option, ensuring success. However, if children are exposed to some supportive risk-taking in play, they may be more likely to choose the harder option, which carries a risk of failure or of difficulty, but ultimately leads to a greater sense of pride and achievement, and further learning when they complete it.
Ultimately, children of all ages need the space and time to explore and play outdoors, both in playgrounds and in nature, to develop these risk-taking behaviours which can then be applied to their learning, giving them the courage to take a risk in learning, pushing them outside of their comfort zone, but resulting in greater understanding and achievement by completing their goals. By facilitating this and supporting children to do this in safe and stimulating environments, we are providing them with the opportunity to take these calculated risks and ultimately develop their own ability to take risks in their learning within the classroom, as well as outside of it.
Sandseter, Ellen Beate Hansen. (2009). Characteristics of risky play. Journal of Adventure Education and Outdoor Learning. 9. 3-21. 10.1080/14729670802702762.