Our kids learn about themselves through exploring and interacting with other people and the world around them. The most effective and natural vehicle for this learning is play.
But here’s the thing: The richest learning experience (and often the most fun) arise through self-directed play that may involve an element of risk. But it is through engaging in physical and environmental challenges that kids test their own limits and capabilities and learn to handle that risk. Here are five reasons for encouraging kids to take risks.
1. Freedom to Learn
Risky play allows a child the freedom to experiment. This can teach children the ability to make the right choices and decisions based on previous lessons learned. They are given the opportunity to evaluate an outcome based on the observation of others or through their own behavior. Look what happened when a friend jumped off the swing at full speed. Is that something I dare to attempt?
While we do not want our children to be reckless, we do want them to be able to explore their world in a way that promotes healthy development. This means that we must give them the space they need to try new things and the freedom to learn from them.
2. Overcome Fears
Some children are just naturally born with fears of the world around them, while other children may grow fearful over time simply because they are always shielded and protected from their world. My daughter had an overwhelming fear of falling off her bike. Teaching her to ride without training wheels became quite the challenge. We spent many afternoons of her putting herself into the risky situation of riding on only two wheels as I ran along beside her before she overcame her fear.
Overcoming fears is an important step in growing up. A child that is allowed to take some risks through play and exploration will learn to be less fearful of their environment. Getting rid of those fears will embolden them, giving them a feeling of confidence and security within themselves.
3. Improves Fine and Gross Motor Skills
There are many ways that a child can develop and fine-tune their motor skills through risky play. Jumping, running, climbing, cycling, swimming, and other activities all play an important role in this form of development. Grasping branches and strategically placing one foot above the other while climbing a tree, or pumping their legs in a specific manner to make the swing go higher and faster teach coordination and balance.
While my oldest son was quite agile and could make his way on a scooter or skateboard with ease, my youngest son was another story altogether. It was not for the lack of trying. That poor boy ended up with so many bumps and bruises, but he never gave up. While I cringed during my son’s learning curve, I was sparing with interventions. It was important for him to take some of these risks to improve his motor skills. I did, however, make him wear a helmet during his learning curve!
4. Builds Self-Confidence
Taking risks and succeeding can provide an immense boost to a child’s self-confidence. It can also teach them how to think critically while trying to figure out what works and what doesn’t; a good choice from a bad choice. There is no better feeling than trying something new and succeeding! Even if your child doesn’t succeed, they will walk away from the experience of knowing that they got the chance to try.
If you are unsure of what your child is actually capable of doing, try following the 17-second rule. While at play, avoid telling your child not to do this or not to do that for 17-seconds while you observe their reaction to the given situation. This will help you to gauge whether or not they are ready for a specific type of risky play. When you show them that you are confident in them by not intervening, you will also be helping them gain self-confidence in themselves.
5. Builds Inventiveness and Creativity
Children that are allowed to enjoy risky play may also gain another unexpected yet positive tool. While a child is out and about doing what kids do, they have this tendency to get rather creative. Doing the same thing day in and day out can make life feel mundane and boring. Children have a tendency to use their creativity to invent new and exciting ways for fun.
I remember one summer when my kids got bored of simply riding their bikes up and down our road. After an entire afternoon of my kids spending the day outside, I decided to see just what they were getting into. I discovered that they had made a bike trail through the woods of our backyard property. Wanting to make their biking experience a little riskier gave them the urge to get creative. They also got some extra exercise through their labor!
Arthur is a father, education writer, and keen rock climber. He is also the chief editor at Muddy Smiles, a resource dedicated to children’s play and its intersection with learning.
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