Expert Commentary

Categorizing risk-taking in children’s play

2011 study in the European Early Childhood Education Research Journal on the risk-taking behaviors that children engage in during play.

A tension exists between adults’ natural desire to keep children safe and the apparently natural need for children to develop their risk-taking abilities by engaging in adventurous play. The first step towards determining what is the appropriate level of risk for children is to categorize the various types play in which they engage.

A 2011 study published in the European Early Childhood Education Research Journal, “Categorising Risky Play: How Can We Identify Risk-Taking in Children’s Play?” used observations of 38 children over five weeks alongside interviews with eight children and seven childcare employees to determine the categories of risky play undertaken by children.

Results of the study include:

  • There are six aspects of risky play: Heights; high speed; potentially harmful tools; dangerous elements; “rough-and-tumble play”; and activities where children can “disappear” or “get lost.”
  • Of these, the most frequently engaged in behavior was play associated with climbing to various heights.
  • Children identified that jumping off play equipment in a manner inconsistent with the manufacturer’s design was known to be forbidden and could cause injury, but was also considered attractive and “fun” behavior.
  • There was great inconsistency in children’s’ abilities to perceive risk associated with playing near water or cliffs, some could identify this as very scary, risky behaviors while others did not see it as risky at all.

The authors note that the study’s sample size was small and therefore “generalization should therefore be done with caution.” The study is a first step in better understanding and managing children’s risky play, they state, concluding, “Research is needed to get a deeper understanding of why children seek experiences on the edge between fear and exhilaration, as well as of how adults’ attitudes (preschool staff) influence or restrict this kind of play.”

Tags: children, safety, parenting

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