The Lessons We Learn From Risky Play

Do you have a favorite playtime memory from your childhood?

Perhaps an informal game of football with friends from your neighborhood (and many of which happened to be bigger than you)? Or that first time you went down the big tornado slide and thought your stomach had migrated into your throat? Or how about jumping out of a moving swing to see how far you could fly? Or that one time you got on the speedy merry-go-round—with the big kids—then hung on for dear life?

Or was it when you tried jumping rocks across the creek and fell in? Or maybe it was when you learned to ride a bike—without training wheels—but then ran into the mailbox and had to get your chin stitched back together.

You took risks by doing these things—that was why it was so thrilling and memorable. You likely also learned some important lessons from your successes and failures.

You learned just how slippery a rock is when wet. How to balance on two wheels and control your speed and direction, because mailboxes don’t move and it hurts to fall down. The freedom of flight…at a safe height. You developed grit and tenacity by playing with the bigger kids. You realized that taking risks could be scary, but the reward of a well calculated risk was phenomenal.

Okay, we admit, not all playgrounds were safe back then. And not everything we did was smart. But that’s how we learn, is it not? Trial and error. Pushing our boundaries. Building strength and endurance through continuous attempts.

Sure, play can be fun within safe boundaries that doesn’t require risk. But didn’t your biggest lessons and growth opportunities come from your failures or when you discovered you could do something you didn’t think you could do?

Play With Risk Serves a Purpose

Today, as parents, we want our children to be safe. We want to protect them from failures we experienced as children. And certainly, safety from serious injury is a priority and one that should not be taken lightly. But sometimes we bubble wrap our children too much. We take away the risks…you know, the ones that bring joy to their day, the memorable moments, and the learning moments.

Children need activities that involve risky play to learn how to assess and manage new situations. They take risks when learning how to walk, run, and climb. And in the process of taking risks, they are learning important lessons that will serve them throughout their lifetimes. Play with risk helps children build social bonds with other children, motor skills, balance, coordination, and body awareness.

If children don’t test their limits, how do they know what is really possible?

How Can You Incorporate Risky Play in Your Playground?

Our role as a provider of quality playground equipment and surfacing is to provide the most exciting—and safe—playground possible. Its components and structures must be enticing and contain challenges and risky play in order for children to learn to extend their boundaries and strengthen their abilities. At the same time, it must meet or exceed safety requirements to limit the opportunity of serious injury.

Your playground equipment and surfacing aren’t meant to remove all risks—just the chance of serious injury. To remove all risks is not only nearly impossible, but it’s stifling the children’s opportunity for indirect learning through play.

Here are several ideas we suggest considering for increased “play” risk on your playground:

  • Tall slides. Choose a slide at least 8' tall. This allows children to get up off the ground and get a different perspective on exploration. A tall, fast-paced slide is also a confidence-booster and promotes physical activity with the repeat trips up and down.
  • Tall swing sets. Most swing sets are 8' tall, but have you ever swung on a 12' swing set? It’s quite thrilling! Activities that activate the vestibular system, like swinging, have been found to improve balance and coordination. More space and proper safety surfacing are needed for taller swing sets.
  • Ziplines. A zipline builds upper body strength, balance, and confidence and is always a hotspot on the playground. Some might perceive risk from the moving, hanging weight of a body dangling from a zipline to a bystander, but the same could be said for swings.
  • Stepping stones. Freestanding structures such as stepping stones or tree stumps are incrementally formed to encourage jumping from one to the next, building balance and agility.
  • Disk swings and climbing nets. Structures made for multiple children to play together increases collaboration and trust and helps children form social bonds with others. In structures such as climbing nets, there is the element of the unknown because the ropes are constantly in motion from movement of others.
  • Outdoor classroom. In this setting, children learn to use primitive tools such as shovels to move/build things, engaging their minds as well as their fine motor skills.

One Safety Item You Shouldn’t Go Without: Playground Surfacing

While risky play has many benefits, there are, of course, certain precautions against serious injury that should be implemented on every playground.

One of the most important safety precautions that should be a part of every playground is proper surfacing. Playground surfacing is designed to prevent severe head trauma from falls according to ASTM F1292* standard. As tragic as it may sound, it is not designed to prevent common injuries. Children seem to find creative ways to injury themselves, and it’s impossible to protect against all of them. Installing proper surfacing on your playground is the best thing you can do to protect children from serious injury.

Design Yours Today

While increased playground safety is important, studies are continuing to point out the social and physical benefits of risky play.

A child will naturally gravitate towards a playground that stimulates risky play over an environment devoid of risk. We can help you design and construct a playground environment children will flourish in. Ask us today for more information.

*Source: http://www.astm.org/cgi-bin/resolver.cgi?F1292-17

Sterling West is a park, playground, safety surfacing, and outdoor fitness representative company based in Gothenburg, Nebraska. Our mission is to experience the joy seeing people of all ages have fun and stay fit, knowing we have enriched the lives of others. For more information or for a free consultation, call Sterling West at 877-537-3470 or check us out at www.sterlingwest.net.

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