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What is Risky Play?

A couple of days ago, I sat down with a friend to talk about building Kade’s memorial park. She asked me if it would be a risky play park and playground. I thought about this for a moment before answering. I want to share with you what I discussed with her.

When working with the park and playground design team, it was stated that the definition of a natural playground can differ greatly from one person to the next. I think the term “risky play” is the same way.

This morning, I took my boys for our daily walk around the neighborhood with the dog. My youngest now wants to walk instead of ride in the stroller. We got to the end of our street and there was a puddle and run off from someone’s early morning lawn watering. My son saw a mighty river to be crossed. He stopped. Then he dramatically backed up in order to pick up speed as he charged toward the puddle at saying, “Jump over it!” He proceeded to run right through the puddle at top speed and then jump dramatically to a stop after passing the water. I congratulated him on his big jump. He was super proud. I saw my child run through a puddle, not really accomplishing what he announced he had set out to do. My son believed that he had just leapt over the mighty Mississippi or the Nile teaming with hungry crocodiles! This is an example of risky play. He knew the puddle needed to be crossed and ideally by jumping over it. However, he wasn’t able to do that. But he tried. Who knows? Next time, he may make it.

Risky play looks different for each child and at each stage of development. A baby learning to crawl may engage in risky play as they work to get up on hands and knees instead of army crawling. Risky play is a toddler learning to walk across the open space with nothing to hold onto; successfully crossing the balance beam a couple inches off the ground; diving off the low diving board into the pool and feeling successful, even when the high board still waits to be conquered. Risky play is looking at a big hill and deciding to ride your bike down the hill from a lower point, instead of starting at the very top. Every time the child rides down the hill, they build their skill level and confidence so that after some practice, they are ready to start from the top and successfully and proudly ride down having done it on their own and at their own pace.

In today’s society, we often rush from one thing to the next. Not stopping to really soak in the moment or allow time for a child to learn a skill through trial and error. This process takes time and patience and many parents and care givers are running low on these resources. It does take time for a child to dress on their own, tie their shoes, buckle the seat belt, peddle the tricycle around the block instead of riding in the stroller. It can be difficult as a parent to stand and watch your child try to do these things as you tick off the 90 other things you still need to get done. However, it is necessary for children to have the opportunity to build and practice these skills. If we always do it for them, they will not learn and instead become dependent on others to accomplish the tasks.

For some, risky play does include activities like letting your child build something with authentic materials, such as a hammer and nails, or even a saw. Maybe they are ready to practice cutting food with a knife, go surfing, snow or water skiing, hunting, horseback riding, or rock climbing. With supervision, some children are ready for these tasks at a very early age. Again, it depends on the child and the situation. I personally think there must be guidelines and boundaries during any activity. If your child and the situation present the opportunity to stretch these boundaries as they test a new skill, then be flexible and safe in deciding how far to push the edge.

So, will the park have opportunities for risky play. You betcha! We envision a space that allows children to interact with the environment, manipulate it through loose parts play, climb, jump, swing, imagine, create, problem solve, and work with others. We are working closely with the parks and recreation department and an expert playground and park design team to create an engaging, safe, and fun space for children to test their own limits, grow, and build confidence. I see risky play as the opportunity to build skills and confidence through trial and error. A child will only climb a tree as high as they are capable. It takes practice to build the confidence, strength, and skill needed to go higher safely. Risky play provides children with the opportunity to build confidence, strength, and skills, often through failure. The child learns to assess the situation, consider options, innovate if necessary, and then decide how to proceed. Some kids will back off and not attempt a task, while others will jump right in. The goal of risky play is to diminish the danger to children, not increase it. Children learn independence, resilience, creativity, and, leadership while playing. They learn to assess a situation and make a plan for how to handle tasks safely. They learn to know their own limits and recognize when they are ready to test them, or not.

We have been watching Finding Nemo on repeat in the car. Marlin, Nemo’s dad, tells Dory he promised Nemo that he would never let anything happen to him. Dory wisely retorts, that’s a weird thing to promise. If you don’t let anything happen to him, then nothing will ever happen to him. That line struck me. As parents, we often say, be careful. Don’t do that. We say it out of fear that our children will get hurt. I understand better than most, the fear of your child getting hurt. It is a daily struggle to let my boys play, experience, and test the boundaries. That’s why I heard Dory’s words so clearly now. Marlin, like me, experienced loss on a tragic and sudden level. His instinct was to protect what he loved. He was trying to keep Nemo safe, but by holding on too tightly he didn’t give him the freedom needed to learn, grow, and develop to his full potential. Risky play allows our children space to test the waters, try new things, push the limits, innovate, grow, and succeed often through a sequence of failures. You either win or you learn, but no matter what, you experience and grow. To me that’s what risky play is all about!

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