Getting Comfortable with Risky Play

By Adrienne Meade


Picture it: You are outside with your class of young children, happily watching as they play. A student who you know to be exceptionally coordinated scales a tree on the playground.   Your school's policy allows the children to climb the trees, but this time she makes it much higher than she or any of her peers have in the past. You observe with uncertainty – will you say something or let her go?


Most early childhood educators will be able to recognize this scenario.  On the one hand, you beam with pride for your student's accomplishment and courage. On the other, you are concerned about the potential for injury. It's a common dilemma when considering risky play in early childhood. Risky play offers many benefits, including developing emotional regulation, critical thinking, and positive self-esteem. But how can educators balance those opportunities with their duty to students' safety and well-being?


While there are no absolute guidelines, it may help to understand more about risky play. When you can recognize its characteristics, you can make decisions about risky play with confidence and conviction. 


Risky Play Is Intentional


Even with the most thoughtful teacher preparation and supervision, all play carries the possibility of harm. Children can trip when walking, be bumped from a tumbling block tower, or get cut while using scissors. Usually, the play that precedes these moments isn't risky, and the child didn't anticipate an accidental injury. In risky play, however, the child is making a deliberate choice to test the environment and their abilities.Risky play requires initiative. It is proactive, not reactive.  In the opening example, we can note that climbing a tree requires effort and engagement. The student, therefore, approaches her self-selected task with a sense of purpose; she is intentional. 


Risky Play Is Careful


Some teachers worry that encouraging risky play will lead to increased injury. However, when I reflect on injuries in my classroom, they often happen when a child is inattentive to the environment or tools. Risky play requires great focus. A child engaging in risky play must simultaneously assess the surroundings, his physical skills, and the limits of both. As they test their theories, children may make adjustments when they repeat the task, working to apply their new understandings. Consider the young climber in the opening vignette. Once she reaches her previous threshold, is she stopping at each branch to consider her next move? Does she periodically check her distance from the ground or try a different approach when a particular limb seems unsteady? If so, you can be sure that you see the complex analytical skills developed in risky play. 


Risky Play Is Interactive


It's important to remember that risky play isn't a free-for-all. Teachers play an essential role in facilitating risky play. It can begin by removing environmental factors that are inherently dangerous. It's safe to assume that children cannot safely navigate things like broken equipment, open bodies of water, or choking hazards in any circumstance. Therefore, it is entirely the teacher's responsibility to manage them, freeing the child to exercise developmentally appropriate judgment with the greatest chance of success. It is also essential that teachers are attentive to risky play, observing closely and providing feedback to guide the play when necessary. A teacher might scaffold risky play by drawing the child's attention to a particular element or offering a suggestion.  Returning to our example, teachers may position themselves at the foot of the tree and call out, "It looks like that branch is shaking a lot. Does it feel shaky, too?" or "Would you like to toss your mittens down to me so you can get a better grip?" 


Risky Play Is Individualized


Risky play will vary, just as the strengths and challenges of each student will vary. Even as we provide children opportunities to test their limits and develop confidence in healthy ways, we must also acknowledge our adult perspective of their unique abilities and developmental stages. It’s strongly advisable to spend some time getting to know the children in your care before encouraging risky play.  You can then draw upon your understanding of each child's needs as you guide them, doing your best to turn every "no" into a "yes." While the student in the opening example has demonstrated expertise in climbing, prior observations may lead you to infer that another student isn't ready to climb quite so high in that tree. Perhaps you can point out a lower piece of climbing equipment to help him develop that skill, or you could direct him towards risky play in one of their areas of strength, such as experimenting with speed while pedaling a tricycle.


Risky play is all about getting outside of our comfort zones in ways that help us grow. When you find yourself in one of those tricky situations, unsure whether to allow or stop the play, take a moment to check in with yourself. Is this situation dangerous, requiring immediate intervention, or does it just feel that way? Is the student's play intentional and careful, building on your knowledge of their abilities? Can you find a way to support their understanding of themselves and the world around them as they engage in the play? Model your willingness to take a risk. Trust yourself, trust the children, and embrace risky play! 


Adrienne Meade



Adrienne Meade has been an early childhood educator for 16 years, working with children ages two through five. Her teaching practice is Reggio-inspired and is characterized by a particular focus on play, relationships, and wellness. Adrienne's blog, Dirt and Bricks, documents the collaborative learning experiences she shares with her students.  Her writing has been featured in The Hechinger Report and Natural Parent Magazine.