There Will Always Be One Child That Will Jump Off the Loft

The Power of Risky Play

The lively echoes of children at play often fill our ears with indescribable joy, yet for many parents and educators, the underlying fear of untoward accidents lurks in the shadows of this mirth. However, what if, instead of aiming at a sanitized, overly controlled form of play that modern societies are accustomed to, we designed environments that deliberately offer risky play experiences because we know it is vital to a child’s development?

Risk taking behaviors are part of childhood. Regarding childhood development, we look to create environments that engage, challenge, and support growth. This is where risky play steps in. Risky play, as a theory, isn’t about throwing caution to the wind; it’s about recognizing the value of calculated risks in a child’s learning process. In this blog post, I will explore how intentional design in play environments can support this crucial element of child development.

The Benefits of Risk-Taking

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Contrary to common misconceptions, risky play serves a far greater purpose than just being another type of entertainment. A wealth of research supports the idea that the benefits of exposing children to controlled risky play extend to improved emotional regulation, increased resilience, and the ability to manage stress.

Connections between motor and emotional development help children recognize their own capacities and how they use their bodies in risk-taking. When children learn to trust their bodies as part of learning and exploring, they develop a strong sense of self. They know what they can and cannot do. They acquire a sense of space and a strong safety compass. In the words of Howard Gardner, “I want my children to understand the world, but not just because the world is fascinating and the human mind is curious. I want them to understand it so that they will be positioned to make it a better place. . . . An important part of that understanding is knowing who we are and what we can do” (Howard Gardner 1999, 180-181). 

Thriving in a new global economy requires the ability to take risks. Risk-taking is essential for entrepreneurship. People who push boundaries and develop mindflex by using materials and visualizing ideas differently are risk-takers. Risk-taking is a critical trait of creativity. Children need to experience physical, social, and intellectual risks to advance their skills and learn how to keep themselves safe. Life involves risks in all areas.

Risk helps children maneuver physical challenges, such as learning to walk or ride a bicycle, to master a social challenge, such as initiating a conversation with an unknown person, or master an intellectual challenge, such as learning to read or discovering a solution to a problem. Children must experience and conquer challenges to learn how to navigate daily life experiences when they are older. Risk includes the following: 

•  learning about risk-taking capacities 

•  physical risks

 •  social-emotional risks

 •  intellectual risks

The Purpose of Play Ecosystems

An environment designed with risky play in mind becomes a play ecosystem. A well-crafted play ecosystem offers a variety of elements that balance challenge and safety, promoting child development in ways that structured play cannot.

Inspired by the Reggio-Emilia approach to early childhood education, the ‘third teacher’ represents the environment — the space, the materials, and the community. A play environment that supports risky play can be seen as an educational tool, guiding children’s learning through exploration and discovery.

Positive risk-taking emphasizes managing risk, not ignoring it, and it involves developing strategies so the risks of an activity are balanced against the benefits. Educators need to assess their own risk compass and create ecosystems that protect against hazards but allow children to take risks. This process requires reflection and creativity regarding how educators perceive and reframe risk-taking. It also requires acknowledging how stressful this can be for adults. Making a significant change in practice requires educators, programs, and agencies to respond to individual and collective concerns and develop long-term successful, positive risk-taking practices. The hope is that when we weigh the positive effects of positive risk-taking, educators will be ready to infuse Loose Parts and stand back to allow children to explore them freely, even outside their comfort zone.

Designing for Engagement and Risk-Taking

Children, by nature, are drawn to exploratory risk-taking behaviors that push their limits and boundaries. My daughter jumped off the loft when she was in preschool. I remember the moment clearly. I was coming through the door to pick her up. When she saw me, she stood up, walked to the loft’s edge, looked down, and jumped. Both teachers run in an attempt to catch her. It happened so fast that there was no way we could prevent it. Teacher Carol picked her up and made sure there were no injuries. I was 8 months pregnant, and the only thing I could do was to sit down and hold her. I had many emotions, including fear that there could be some invisible injury, hating the loft, and anger that the teachers did not stop her from jumping. We finally made it home, and I calmed down and checked her further. I gave her a bath to calm both of us down. I trusted the teachers in the program. I also knew that my daughter was adventurous and tested her limits. With a new baby on the way, it made sense that my daughter needed extra comfort and attention. Rather than getting mad at the program, I talked with the teachers to see how we could support my daughter’s need for risk-taking. 

Though it seems contradictory, incorporating elements of risky play in designed spaces can result in safer environments in the long run. This form of play is fun and fosters experiential Learning that remains unmatched in conventional settings. Risk testing gave my daughter confidence, and as a parent, it helped me see her strengths and move beyond my fears so that I could trust her and support her. 

Learning from Tree Climbing – Risk-Taking and Nature

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Close up of child hands embracing a tree trunk.

Think back to when you were a child. Perhaps your earliest memory of successful risk assessment and physical prowess involved scaling a tree. This activity encapsulates the essence of risky play, where the child’s perception and motor skills are continually honed to manage potential dangers. By translating this idea into play environments, such as climbing structures with varying difficulty levels that the children can control and move, we are essentially designing for a richer learning experience. These types of risk taking activities are essential to children’s agency and persistence.

Climbing a tree or a hill is filled with challenges and requires learning to manage risk-taking behaviors. Children must learn to balance their bodies and move with dexterity from branch to branch or the inclines of the hill. The same is true for walking on different terrains and surfaces. I once watched a young toddler expertly walking down a river bed filled with large boulders. He took three steps and stopped. He assessed where to place his feet as he descended a few more steps. When he reached the bottom of the river bed, he jumped into the grass and smiled. He immediately went up to begin the descent once again. He never fell. Not until a well-meaning educator yelled, “Be careful, you are going to fall.

As educators, we must understand that our perceptions of risk are often based more on our fears than any objective measure of likeliness or harm. Learning to identify the reason for the fear can help us control it. When we step back and trust children’s capacities, we can better support children’s innate need to take risks.

Take Care of the Hazard to Allow the Risk

There has been a recent push to sanitize the environment to eliminate any possible risks regarding children and their play spaces. While this may seem like a logical move for many, it ignores the fact that children are capable of managing risks themselves. Instead of removing all the essential elements and materials like swings, sand, and climbing structures, we must create a safe environment where children can learn to test their limits. This way, they can build confidence in themselves and their abilities. Rather than learning to depend on adults for guidance and safety, we can create a more trusting and empowering environment by valuing children’s capacities and strengths.

An essential aspect of this intentional design is to take care of the hazards, so children perceive them as challenges rather than threats. Encasing the base of a climbing structure with soft, absorbent material or designing climbable structures that are high but ergonomically safe allows children to explore their limits without facing grave risks.

Risk, Problem-Solving and Resilience

Offering children the opportunity to take risks and manage their outcomes empowers them with a more profound sense of resilience. When children successfully tackle the challenge of a high climb or a fast spin, they are also internalizing the process of developing strategies for problem-solving—skills that carry into adulthood.

I will never forget the day my daughter ran excitedly to tell me that she had learned to hang upside down in the climbing structure. She proceeded to show me. The structure was not tall, but I took a deep breath and watched her. I clapped and celebrated her accomplishment. She had spent a week practicing how to hang upside down, and this was the culmination of her learning. 

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Engaging in risky play gives children an arena to explore the outcomes of their actions. They develop a clearer understanding of cause and effect by assessing and managing these risks. Successful self-regulation of these actions goes a long way in building a child’s confidence in their own abilities.

Loose Parts and Risk Taking

Being unscripted and unpredictable materials, loose parts offer infinite possibilities and invite children to engage in risky play. Whether it’s a log that can be balanced across rocks or a tarp that can be turned into a makeshift fort, risk-taking enhances imaginative play while promoting problem-solving and decision-making.

Do you remember letting your imagination run wild as a child and using found materials uniquely? Perhaps you remember turning a large appliance box into a submarine, tunnel, hideout, or car wash. Possibly, you flattened the box and used it as a sled to slide down a grassy hill or turned it into a shield. There was a sense of power in taking risks as your imagination tools you into unpredictable adventures. Creativity requires only our imagination, ability to take risks, and unscripted materials. 

Architect Simon Nicholson coined the term Loose Parts. He used loose parts to mean unscripted materials that can be used and manipulated in different ways. His definition of loose parts extended beyond actual objects and materials, including experiences with phenomena such as chemical interactions, gravity, motion, sound, wordplay, concepts, and ideas. Play and learning possibilities are endless in spaces with an unlimited variety of Loose Parts and educators ready to take risks with the children. 

My friend, colleague, and mentor, Bev Bos, always talked about environments that offer an illusion of risk. Her words remain with me as I continue to support educators in creating engaging play ecosystems. 

In Safe Hands

The notion of risky play often strikes fear in the hearts of those who perceive it as synonymous with danger. However, with a well-informed and thoughtful approach to design and supervision, risky play can morph into a profound vehicle to support children’s development. By approaching the design of play environments to include risk, we can ensure that our children are safe and capable.

Play is the paradigm through which children experience the world and themselves. By honoring children’s needs to engage in activities that develop their sense of agency, we are, in fact, nurturing the architects of our future.

Let us continue to work, given the assumption that play is crucial to the development of all children, and we must create inclusive ecosystems to support the play of children with diverse abilities. Shifting the language from the term “environments” to “ecosystems” allows us to see that every person, object, and space design are interconnected and affect each other. In an inclusive ecosystem, children are present and considered active and valuable members of the family, school, and community. When we approach education from an ecosystem perspective, we will value beauty in humans and their surroundings as a catalyst for transforming children’s lives.

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What Do You Think

  1. Have you ever taken a risk while playing? How did it turn out?
  2. What is the biggest risk you’ve taken in your life, and why did you decide to take it?
  3. Has taking risks during play helped you learn and improve your skills?
  4. Do you think being too cautious in play limits your potential for growth and success?
  5. What do you do to promote risk-taking in your early childhood play ecosystem?

References:

Beloglovsky, Miriam Loose Parts for Children With DIverse Abilities. St. Paul: Minnesota: Redleaf Press, 2021.

Daly, Lisa; Beloglovsky, Miriam. Loose Parts 4: Inspiring 21st-Century Learning Redleaf Press. St. Paul: Minnesota: Redleaf Press, 2020, Kindle Edition.

Gardner, Howard. Intelligence Reframed: Multiple Intelligences for the 21 St Century. New York: Basic Books, 1999.