Risky Play in Early Childhood Education

By Molly Breen

Risky Play in Early Childhood EducationIf you are, perhaps, a mid-millennial or older and grew up in the United States, you likely spent your summers in some amount of unsupervised play. Some of us even remember having a family rule to “come in when the streetlights come on.” We spent hours making our own fun, navigating challenges, seeking adventures, and testing limits. Yes, there were probably more stitches and broken bones (I had both) “back in the day,” but there were also innumerable benefits to the hands-off parenting approach. What we didn’t know then but do know now is that these periods of adventurous play (now frequently referred to as “risky play”) were creating positive neural pathways for resilience, self-esteem, and physical agility and were helping us develop our executive function capacities—all critical life skills.

In this era of Amber Alerts, gun violence, and risk aversion cloaked in vigilant supervision (and scheduling) of children’s activities, we must ask ourselves both as parents and as educators: Are we depriving children of the invaluable experiences of risk-taking in play?

In our preschool program setting, summers are a time when we depart from the rigors of the regular school year with a “summer camp” vibe. We are in Minnesota and, after months spent cooped up indoors (in truth, we go outside Every. Single. Day. at our preschool, but the number of hours spent outside is definitely diminished in the winter months), all of us—both educators and children—are eager to spend as much time outside as possible. At our program, this means walks to area parks, daily water play, and hours of open-ended outdoor exploration, even in our urban setting.

Within this context, we also promote risk-taking in play. Risk-taking in play, or risky play, has a variety of features and can look different depending on the setting. In our program, we subscribe to keeping kids as safe as necessary as opposed to as safe as possible. For example, instead of saying “Be careful” to a child who is scaling a stone wall and navigating a crumbling section, we say, “Think that through—do you notice what I notice?” Our geographical boundaries for exploration tend to expand at the park, but we set up shared expectations before our urban explorers set out, noting physical boundaries and reminding children to come together when the teacher calls. When our students are climbing to new heights in a tree or on a playground, we check in with them: “How do you feel? Can you figure out how to get back down yourself?” (We keep a general rule of “Up on your own, down on your own.”) Just as in other areas of teaching and learning with children, we differentiate our approach to risky play depending on the developmental needs of the individual child. But truly, children really are the very best ones to assess how much risk in play they can handle. In fact, that’s the whole point.

All of us who work with young children have different thresholds for the safe-as-necessary barometer. I have found that this article can be a helpful start for both parents and educators to evolve their understanding of the benefits of risky play. Additionally, research like this literature review can help fortify our resolve to allow for risky play because understanding the lifelong benefits can lead us to make decisions based on research rather than on personal beliefs. Most importantly, we should have an approach to risk-taking in play that is unified across our teaching team and shared with parents when children enroll. This, along with a continued commitment to conversation with peers and parents about what risky play looks like in our settings, will ultimately provide a variety of experiences for our young learners.

Will there be tears, bumps, and bruises along the way? Probably. Is the flip side to that coin increased resilience, confidence, curiosity, pride, and a whole host of other positive outcomes? Definitely.

Here are five ways you can begin or evolve the conversation about risky play in your setting:

  1. Ask your director if your program has a position on risky play. If you are a director, reflect on whether you have clearly shared a philosophical position on risky play.
  2. Devote some part of your staff meeting to reading the research on risky play and discussing individuals’ risk thresholds. Share anecdotes of student success with risk-taking in play. If you work alone, seek out credible and peer-reviewed resources on risky play and read up!
  3. Set a goal for the summer to expand your adventurous or risky play to include a new element—perhaps letting students use tools at a woodworking bench or allowing for some “off-road” hiking so students can practice navigating uneven terrain.
  4. Take the risk assessment at Outside Play to see where you are in your own risky play journey.
  5. Go along with your students! Try something new and challenge yourself, and share what you learn with them.

Molly BreenMolly Breen, M.A., ECE, has worked with kids and families for nearly two decades as an educator. A believer in lifelong learning, her heart is in early childhood, where the seeds of curiosity, character, and community are planted. Through her work with children as a practitioner in the classroom, Molly has developed broad expertise in curriculum development and instruction, behavior guidance, and social and emotional learning. In her role as a program director, she has created innovative approaches to professional and program development, family engagement, and community outreach. She lives in St. Paul, Minnesota, with her husband and three kids.


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2 Responses to Risky Play in Early Childhood Education

  1. Debora R says:

    I am an upper elementary/6th grade science teacher who strongly believes in the philosophy of “risky work.” In experiments with wires and batteries I let my students know they’ll probably feel a little shock and heat. Students trust me, and themselves. They “experience” insulators and conductors. When testing the electrical current in water we go to the creek. Some students slip, other students help. When we review our learning, the knowledge sticks as does the ability to figure out how things work, our knowledge that peers can be trusted to help, and that each child is stronger and braver than they believe.

    For parents and educators who doubt, my students gain an average of 2.8 years knowledge on annual academic tests. That is the benefit adults tend to value. Experience and opportunity to learn by “risk” is what my students value.

    • MOLLY BREEN says:

      Hi, Debora! Thanks so much for sharing this anecdote of how risk works in your setting. And, boy-oh-boy, the data doesn’t lie, does it? Informally, I would also imagine the students are engaged on another level when risk is involved- like the difference between drinking out of a glass cup or a plastic cup: with which would we be more mindful? In my experience, kids really “get it” when we trust them to trust themselves. I have no doubt that your students (wet or dry) will feel the positive impact of your teaching for years to come!

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