Picture yourself at the local playground. Just beyond the sounds of children laughing and the squeaking of swings, you might also hear some familiar commands, such as “slow down!”, “not so high!”, “get down from there!”, and of course, “be careful!” These directives are instinctual: Within seconds, you see a behavior that might be deemed risky, you predict an impending injury, and you stop the risky behavior before it goes any further. But is that always the best reaction?
Should you allow a toddler to dip his tiny toes into risky play every once in a while? Could risky play actually support his development? The simple answer to this question is, yes! Research shows us that engaging in risky play has more positive benefits for toddlers than avoiding risky play altogether. In fact, one of the things parents and caregivers fear the most about risky play is injury, but allowing little ones to take developmentally-appropriate risks can actually make them safer because they learn how to safely navigate their environments.
What is Risky Play?
The definition of risky play can be subjective. For instance, one person might see certain behaviors as risky while another might not find them risky at all. That’s why it’s important to offer some clarity on what child development experts and researchers mean when they refer to risky play. According to researcher Ellen Beate Hansen Sandseter, the six categories of risky play are:
- Play at Great Heights – Hanging, climbing, and learning to balance.
- Play with High Speed – Riding a bike, running, or sliding down a slide.
- Play with Dangerous Elements – Making a fire, playing near a body of water.
- Play Rough and Tumble – Wrestling or pretend/play fighting.
- Lost/Disappear – Hide-and-go-seek in the woods or an unfamiliar area.
- Play with Dangerous Tools – Using a hammer, scissors, or saw.
We want to highlight that we’re not recommending you hand your little one a saw and tell him to have fun with it! Risky play for toddlers should be developmentally appropriate and supervised.
Developmental Benefits of Toddler Risky Play
So what are these benefits exactly? When we say “positive effects of risky play,” we don’t mean that Tommy will be able to climb higher than his friends or Chloe will be the best at starting fires. We’re talking about real developmental benefits here! Data collected from various studies on toddler risky play show the following effects:
- An increase in self-confidence, social development, and physical activity
- Learning more about themselves and their limits
- Learning what safety looks like
- Learning risky/safety language and how to help others stay safe in risky circumstances
- An increase in creativity
- Learning to cope in stressful situations
- Learning to be more resilient
By giving a toddler an opportunity to explore developmentally-appropriate risks, you’re allowing him to exercise his own risk management skills. When you notice him warning a peer about a step that may be too slippery or an edge that may be too sharp, those are examples of having learned to be aware of his environment and use problem-solving to safely navigate it – one of the main benefits of risky play.
It’s interesting to note that because research shows such strong benefits of risky play, some countries (such as Canada, Norway, and England) incorporate it into school settings.
Ways to Incorporate Toddler Risky Play
One way to wrap your mind around the idea of risky play is to tap into your memories of your own upbringing. Let’s face it, risky play was much more accepted a few generations ago! As a small child, you may have been able to swing faster or climb higher than a toddler in today’s world. Keep this in mind when you’re attempting to loosen your boundaries and engage in appropriate risky play. Here are some other tips:
- Explain safety rules without making it sound scary
- Set time aside for routine outdoor play
- Encourage small risks without putting pressure on your child
- Offer choices, such as taking a riskier path or using a different tool he may have never used before
- Instead of phrases like, “that’s not safe” or “that’s too high”, try “do you feel safe?” or “how high do you want to go?”
Incorporating risky play may cause more anxiety in the caregiver than the toddler, but at the end of the day, it’s an important element of early development. Enjoy the process of exploring and taking some small but significant risks together!