• Suzanne Axelsson

The Complexity of Risky Play

On my social media I recently shared this image... with these words...

"As I write about risk, play and teaching I keep thinking of ways to visualize it using what I know from playwork and pedagogy…

Risky play is at the edge of a child’s capacity on the harder side of play… the other side of the flow is the stuff that doesn’t awake curiosity, that is already known knowledge, or is simply too easy to awaken any sense of thrill.

Beyond the edge is what the child is too tricky - physically, emotionally, socially, spiritually- and there is the possibility of harm.

By observing the children in play flow we will learn where the edge is - to ensure that the space, resources and permission we provide is adequate for them to explore and expand the edge while keeping them safe from the too-hard-for-now.

Edit. The boring, too easy, not interesting part would include non-play activities. Children who do repetitive play to self soothe, or play with younger siblings stuff are interested in this and find joy. For some children doing non-repetitive play would feel risky and edging towards panic or anxiety. So ALL play flow is valued in this visual. Every child’s risk edge will be unique to them - some it will be playing with others, or trying something new, and for some it will be racing down a hill, or balancing on a log, and for others more challenging jumps from greater heights… Each child has their own relationship with risk."

What I have noticed is that it was necessary for me to do an edit, as there were, rightfully so, questions about the too easy side of things and that some children need easiness and that maybe there should be an edge there. Maybe there should... but I think that when children are experiencing the joy of flow it doesn't matter how easy, or repetitive it is through the eyes of the observer, it is meeting a play need of the child at that moment in time. Not all play is about evolving and developing and learning - it is sometimes engaged in to feel good, or to soothe, or to recombobulate - and that is every bit as important as the pushing limits kind of play.


I also noticed some people are developing a fear that by using the term risky play to include social and emotional risk that the physical aspect is being undermined and that some educators will think that providing social risky play could replace physical risky play. I want to make my intentions with this visual as clear as possible... there is no desire to replace anything with something else, only an encouragement to understand the complexity of risk taking and play. There is a lot of research showing the many benefits of physical risky play and that it improves social and emotional development. What I want to also put forward is that there are:

  • many benefits in social play that benefit physical and emotional development, and

  • many benefits in emotional play that benefit physical and social development.

It's not a one directional developmental direction where physical risky play is the only important risk taking play factor to consider.

Physical risky play is a kind of play that often get's limited - due to limited access to space, to sensory rich spaces that challenge (from indoors to outdoors, from human-manufactured to nature etc), to fears that children will get hurt, to cultural thinking about what is play, what is children, gender, education etc etc

Children need more autonomy - and with that come risks... physical risks as in the risky play described by Sando, Kleppe and Sandseter (2021) heights, speed, rough and tumble/fight/warplay, getting lost/disappearing, dangerous tools, dangerous elements, intentionally crashing into, and vicarious (watching others engage in risky play and feeling the thrill). It is obvious that the addition of the last two - crashing and vicarious show how these Norwegian researchers are evolving how they view children's risky play - as vicarious is unlikely to result in physical harm which has been a one of the descriptors of what is "risky play" from a physical perspective.


All children need access to all these 8 categories. Different ages and different abilities will need different kinds of heights, speeds etc to engage with in thrilling ways. I choose not to add the great to the height or the high to the speed - as I feel this can encourage some to think that it is only great heights from their adult perspective that is the risk - which can result in either adults being too fearful to allow their children to engage in physical risky play, or provide resources that might be inappropriate - usually it tends to be the former.

The great is for each child... so for a one year old jumping off a plank lying on the ground can be risky, as they have not yet mastered full control of their body and the few centimetre jump can end up in a fall. Running down a gentle slope can be extremely thrilling for a toddler who might easily lose control and fall or crash as they are still mastering how to run. More experienced, able children might need higher heights, steeper slopes etc to meet the same thrill... equally I have seen older children return to the plank on the ground to try out different and new balancing skills - providing that thrill once more on a low plank.


But there are also many social risks children take - daring to make friends, daring to say no to friends, daring to dress in clothes that are different (often its easier for girls to wear stereotypical boy clothes than it is for boys to wear stereotypical girls clothes) - it risks being teased and worse. Lying, swearing, the line between joking, teasing, bullying and how that affects others (and self)

Some children might succumb to peer pressure to do physically dangerous things because of a need to belong.

Some children are forced to be social and play in certain ways because they want to belong, be seen as "normal" and this negatively impacts their well-being. Children need space to test this out for themselves - sometimes, though, they need support from educators or older children to prevent high levels of anxiety that is potentially harmful. Knowing each child's edge will help the educator when to interact, when to intervene - and when they would be interfering.


Emotionally we take risks too - in liking and loving others, in sharing, in overcoming fears... these are also connected to physical risky play. It's not separate. Learning how to interpret the emotional responses of others (vicarious) is an essential part of physical risky play. Children who observe others looking scared as they play are less likely to try that out - a mechanism to keep safe. Observing children excited and happy about the play encourages the onlooker to give it a try. Research (Morrengiello and Lasenby-Lessard 2007) show that often boys are less likely to accurately read the facial expressions of others engaged in play and more likely to try things beyond their physical capability - they also discuss the fact that boys' social interactions also promote a higher level of risk taking that results in injury. The research is not about eliminating risky play but about finding strategies to reduce the bigger injuries that impact the children's play for some time afterwards, or permanently.


After talking with a friend yesterday about risk, play and teaching the topic of digital risky play came up... and I think this needs to be discussed more... for all ages. And not just the usual "screen time is harmful" (because digital play is more than that) and that it is sedentary (which so is reading, and classroom teaching) - but these are still things that need to be reflected on so that we are offering/encouraging a wide range of play.. but the actual geography of cyberspace and how it is populated is also important to reflect from a risk point of view - are children safe there, and what kind of risks are there? What is at the edge for a child in a digital play flow? And how do we support children - who are digital natives, when we ourselves are digital immigrants?


I want to write it again. My intention to diversify what is risky play is not to say one kind of risk taking is more important than another. None of them replace each other - all of them are needed for a child to thrive.


So that children in wheelchairs get access to risky play - physical, emotional, social, spiritual (by spiritual I mean a connection with the universe - it can be religious for some, but for others it is a connection with nature, or whatever their spirit connects to) So that autistic and other neurodiverse children can access risky play - and not get forced into the beyond their personal edge in order to try and belong So that BIPoC children can access risky play safely - to be included, to feel safe in order to engage in physical risky play - rather than risk of physical danger.

So that LGBTQ+ children can access risky play as themselves - because if we are not free to be ourselves then the experience of physical risky play is weighted with an extra layer of fear. There are so many children, for so many reasons - Deaf, Blind, sick, Down Syndrome, etc etc etc etc etc etc etc that are not able to access a full range of play based on their OWN PLAY NEEDS.

Too many children are forced into non-play because their way of playing is not seen as play. The flow, the joy of play, is personal to each child. My neuroscientist husband tells me that play is the brain learning to adapt to a complex world. We never stop playing. How we play will change over time.

My edge - my risky play - will always be changing as I not only learn new skills, new abilities, but also develop new fears (that need to be overcome, or help keep me safe with the changing ability of my body as it gets older) - so it is not something that is static and always growing in one direction. Play is a shape that is growing in all directions at the same time... and at the edge of that is what is beyond our capability (maybe for now, maybe forever) but playing at the edge is where we can learn about our potential and developing our abilities.

Play is choice and joy. Anxiety is not a choice many, if any, would choose. It is not joy. That means it is non-play.

Boring, uninterested is seldom chosen freely either, it is also not filled with joy - it is, therefore, non-play. (what is anxiety inducing and what is uninteresting is specific to each child) Risky play is a part of play.

It is freely chosen, it is filled with joy - tummy tickling fear is a part of joy - and is not the same as fear - it is the space where we learn to self-regulate fear within play - so that when faced with real fear we are better equipped to deal with it. Original Learning is acknowledging this complexity. And reflecting on it. So we can respond appropriately as educators to the play and learning needs of others/children.

some of the posts I have written on risky play https://www.interactionimagination.com/post/putting-the-adventure-back-into-play

https://www.interactionimagination.com/post/play-with-uncertain-outcomes-aka-risky-play

https://www.interactionimagination.com/post/the-story-of-risky-play-and-indigeneity

https://www.interactionimagination.com/post/2019/08/20/one-step-at-a-time

https://www.interactionimagination.com/post/2019/05/20/structure-for-freedom

https://www.interactionimagination.com/post/the-soothing-nature-of-scribbles

https://www.interactionimagination.com/post/the-truth-about-play

https://www.interactionimagination.com/post/the-story-of-friction

https://www.interactionimagination.com/post/the-flow-and-play-frame-of-drawing

https://www.interactionimagination.com/post/the-story-of-rough-and-tumble-play

https://www.interactionimagination.com/post/the-story-of-the-observer-child

https://www.interactionimagination.com/post/the-healing-powers-of-play

https://www.interactionimagination.com/post/autism-waterplay

https://www.interactionimagination.com/post/2019/08/08/why-together-art-varf%C3%B6r-tillsammans-konst

https://www.interactionimagination.com/post/2019/08/07/ladders

https://www.interactionimagination.com/post/2019/06/18/to-help-or-not-to-help

https://www.interactionimagination.com/post/2019/06/12/skills-for-philosophy-with-children-1

https://www.interactionimagination.com/post/2019/06/07/the-competent-child-the-competent-teacher

https://www.interactionimagination.com/post/2019/05/15/thoughts-based-on-a-tragedy

https://www.interactionimagination.com/post/2019/05/06/the-story-of-being-invisible

https://www.interactionimagination.com/post/2019/03/05/lawnmower-and-helicopter-teachers


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