Babies and toddlers gain confidence and skills by taking age-appropriate risks.
Co-authored by Sarah MacLaughlin, LSW.
Children are natural explorers and it is their job to run, jump, and climb, while it is a caregiver’s job to keep their child safe. That seems like a straightforward task, however in an understandable effort to reduce injuries, children may be experiencing the problem of too much safety in the form of not enough outdoor, risky play (Brussoni et al, 2012). In fact, societal and parental fears have led to a decline in “risky” play structures, which means fewer opportunities for children to develop new abilities (Brussoni et al, 2012).
Children need frequent, sustained outdoor “big body” play for optimal physical health, but also to properly develop cognitive, social-emotional, and self-regulation skills (Little, 2020). Practitioners can share information with caregivers that will foster a balanced approach, one that ensures relative safety while recognizing the value of “a little bit” of risky play.
The benefits of risky play
Risky play fosters independence, risk-assessment skills, and “positive” stress—the kind that is growth-promoting. Children evaluate their limits when they experiment and push themselves during play. They can’t easily predict what will happen and learn to consider the two extremes of not enough risk, which may be too boring, and a lot of risk, which can be too scary. Some children are more natural risk-takers and will need support slowing down to assess safety, while others who are more risk-averse might need encouragement to take any risk at all (Brussoni et al, 2012). In either case, when children toggle between boring and scary, they learn to go at their own pace and assess their abilities wisely. They also gain new abilities and increase their confidence.
How caregivers can foster healthy risk-taking
- Consider their own beliefs, attitudes, and worries about risk. Reflect on their tolerance for childhood’s minor scrapes and scratches. Think about how to best self-regulate so they can be a present, helpful support as children take risks.
- Scaffold a child’s abilities by paying attention, offering feedback, and narrating what is happening. When a caregiver takes on a “coach” role, it allows the child to keep going while feeling supported.
- Refrain from helping children climb into spaces they cannot get down from on their own. If a child starts to climb, check in with them. Instead of saying “be careful,” ask them to pause, notice their body, and see how they feel. This process allows them to problem-solve and assess their next move.
- Only assist a child if it is requested or indicated through their behavior or there is a serious safety concern. When offering help, provide as little as required for the child to navigate the situation on their own, i.e., offer your hand to hold while they get down instead of lifting them.
Never allow risky play around water
While risk-taking is important for children, water safety is paramount. Drowning is the No. 1 cause of injury-related death for toddlers. Keep a constant eye (and maybe hand) on children who are in and around water. Water features are not a good place to allow children to explore unsupervised. Any play space for babies and toddlers should not have standing water available, as they can drown in just a couple of inches.
Risks can equal rewards
While child safety remains vital, it is valuable to strike a balance between protecting children and allowing them to engage in appropriate risky play. As noted, there are many benefits to allowing for riskier play (and ironically, the more children are allowed to engage in risky play, the better they get at it). When caregivers embrace environments where children can explore controlled risk, they grow into confident, resilient individuals who are able to navigate their lives—and the world—with competence.
Little, H. (2020, December 2). Promoting children’s risky play in outdoor learning environments. The Education Hub. https://theeducationhub.org.nz/promoting-childrens-risky-play-in-outdoor-learning-environments/
Brussoni, M., Olsen, L. L., Pike, I., & Sleet, D. A. (2012). Risky play and children’s safety: balancing priorities for optimal child development. International journal of environmental research and public health, 9(9), 3134–3148. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph9093134