What is this so-called risky play? This is a question I have been asked quite a bit over the past few months. The research surrounding risky play is growing worldwide. I have been able to observe risky play areas and techniques both in my own teaching practice as well as in my outdoor community education networks.
In essence, risky play allows children to play and explore in an unstructured environment. At the school I am teaching at, we are fortunate enough to have created a large loose parts area in the back corner of our school field. We have large plastic pallets, a handful of full length 2×6 inch beams, and a various assortment of different sized tires. Once a week during our outdoor classroom time we spend an afternoon in this area. It started with some important conversations around, personal safety boundaries, mindful building practices and cooperative social conversations. We started off slowly, allowing the students to first create with just the pallets. Exploring the concepts of weight, balance, strategy and creativity. As the students became comfortable with these materials and aware of their individual strengths and weakness, we introduced the 2×6 beams and tires. Again the conversations were done first and then the exploration of how these new materials felt to lift, carry, build and balance with. As the comfort level grew both individually and collectively the structures and imagination grew with it.
What children gain from these unstructured over human made play areas is important social and collaborative interactions. The students need to work together to carry, build and create large creations. They are continuously building their ability to solve their own conflicts and grow their critical thinking.
Large loose parts is just one of many ways to introduce risky play to children. Another example from our school program is; every year the trees surrounding our school are pruned. Branches are cut to escape them falling in winter storms. Every year we ask the arborist to leave the fallen branches for a few weeks in order to give our students a chance to build and play with them. Last year we created giant nests, which sparked an inquiry into local birds and how to attract them to our school grounds. For weeks the students built forts, protected their castles from the fierce dragons and opened up a natural herbal store made from sticks, leaves and of course mud. By allowing children to explore their natural boundaries, and allowing them to climb, jump, navigate themselves in areas that are not secured to the ground, helps them build self-confidence, conflict solving skills, personal boundaries and healthy risk taking decision making.
Risky play is giving students the skills to know their boundaries. To allow them to understand what risk is. “If I step on this icy stump with my foot I might slip. I better use my whole body to crawl across instead.” -grade 1 student. As adults we naturally use the phrase BE CAREFUL, but hardly ever do we take the time to explain what careful is or what it means. By saying “Yes, you can climb that tree, but lets have a conversation about what that looks like so you know what you need to feel safe.” This is what risky play is intended to do. To give the students the opportunities to understand their own idea of what feeling safe is to them, to explain the potential risks and conflicts that may happen and ways to navigate around these risks if they to arise.
Risky play day in our weekly outdoor class is one of my favourites because it is the area I see them most social emotional growth in. I am able to see my student solve problems on their own, take care of each other during this explorative time, and knowing when to ask for help from myself if they need it. It challenges their mental and physical abilities and build their confidence and self-esteem. Essential learning elements in every persons life.