Rough and tumble, risky play: a complete guide for early childhood blog header

Rough-and-tumble, risky play: a complete guide for early childhood

Mason is three years old. He loves jumping – onto things, off of things, and sometimes just on the spot. He often enjoys exploring different areas of the playground at his preschool on his own. Nope, he doesn’t need help.  His educator, Ms. Lee, knows that Mason likes to push his limits when outdoors. 

Mason normally stays close to the mulch where his landing is cushioned. But, today he has set a bigger goal for himself, going higher on the climbing structure than he’s ever gone before. He looks down over the edge. Ms. Lee is watching closely and can see Mason thinking about his jump. To be completely honest, she’s a little nervous about Mason’s new goal.  So, she approaches Mason considering her next step – caution him, be on standby in case he needs help, or tell him not to do it altogether.

Well, Mason jumps! He lands on both feet and hands, pauses, looks up and giggles at Ms. Lee who just witnessed his first (of many) leaps off the biggest climbing structure on the playground. 

Whew! We’ve all been there, the mild anxiety of watching children test, understand, and push their limits as they learn about their bodies and minds. These formative experiences that involve self-imposed risks are essential for children to develop in a well-rounded way and acquire skills that “just can’t be taught.”

What is rough-and-tumble play? 

Rough and tumble play, often referred to as risky play, is exactly what it sounds like – adventurous, outside of the box, messy, unstructured, nature-based, free, and fun! Unfortunately, parents in this day and age can be a little overprotective and social attitudes have developed to encourage more supervision and regulated environments (which isn’t inherently a bad thing!). However, overprotection has led to creating a sheltered environment that is, ironically, detrimental to healthy early development. 

Source: Giphy

Sensory-rich adventurous play engages different developmental domains together as a child is developing. Navigating thrilling experiences teaches children to regulate and process their emotions, problem-solve, and work together as a team. 

What are the benefits of risky play? 

Unstructured play with controlled risk contributes a lot to a child’s development. When a child experiences a minor incident, they will come away from the experience having learned something and will adapt their approach.

This kind of play builds many key life skills: 

  • Resilience to bounce back from failure
  • Independence that promotes problem-solving 
  • Physical control and coordination 
  • Self-regulation 
  • The ability to process stress and fears
  • Self-confidence and leadership

A child who has these skills will be more willing to try a task again if the opportunity presents itself shortly after failing. Trial and error with minimal adult intervention in early childhood is important in an early years setting where the environment is controlled and the stakes are fairly low – a minor scrape or a bruise is all part of playground fun!

Source: Giphy

Of course, each child has their own unique needs and will engage in adventurous play differently. The whole point is that the opportunity to explore is available in their early learning setting.

Unfortunately, modern-day social attitudes and safety regulations can cause educators to hold back on creating these learning opportunities. Research has shown a steady decline in free play since the 1950s, which has caused an increase in childhood issues such as obesity, anxiety, and depression.

How to support rough and tumble play 

Outside the Princess Diana Playground in Kensington Gardens in London, which attracts more than a million visitors a year, a placard informs parents that risks have been ‘intentionally provided, so that your child can develop an appreciation of risk in a controlled play environment rather than taking similar risks in an uncontrolled and unregulated wider world.”

NY Times

Educators are key to facilitating risky play. The combination of recognizing that risk-taking activities are important, close observation, knowing each individual child’s personality, and actively supervising the environment are key ingredients to creating a safe environment for adventurous play. 

Outdoor playscapes with a lot of loose parts encourage creativity and exploration. This freedom can prevent boredom and help a childcare program reduce the number of behavioral issues that could arise and mitigate issues such as bullying

The best method to orchestrate challenging play is to balance risk with reward. Key elements of this are:

  • Freedom of choice 
  • Experimental opportunities
  • Minimal adult intervention 

As educators (and parents!), it’s all about balancing the risk and the benefit. Adults have a responsibility to prevent unnecessary risks to children’s safety and well-being by providing learning opportunities for them to manage their safety level. 

children recycling in a park

This is the difference between providing a well-maintained play area that children can safely climb on, jump off and explore, versus unmaintained structures that could pose an injury risk if it falls apart when a child is jumping on it. Risky play does not mean negligence!  

Respecting a child’s ability to think independently and involving them in mitigating risk is the best way to empower children to keep themselves safe. Yes, you read that right – children are often the best judge for what they are and aren’t ready for! 

You might be pleasantly surprised to find that children who are empowered to take risks will buddy up and watch out for each other. When risky play becomes a group exercise, children will form close bonds and build their social skills through encouraging and helping one another.

Examples of rough-and-tumble play

The thrill and satisfaction of overcoming fear and navigating novel situations to learn a new skill are key to inspiring a love for learning. Adventurers and inquiring minds should be encouraged and nurtured! When children are allowed to push boundaries, new ideas and innovations happen. Let your children do their thing and you might well be surprised by what they come up with! 

Summer is the perfect time to get outside and encourage risky play. Here are some ideas to get you started: 

  • Make an obstacle course in the playground – or better yet get the children to help you design it!
  • Use sticks as swords 
  • Let them ride their bikes further than they usually would
  • Give them nets to catch bugs
  • Show them how to make a slingshot 
  • Exploring the outdoors – climbing, jumping, swinging
  • Designing their own game of tag!

Let us know what you think of rough-and-tumble play in the comments below – do you love it or is it intimidating? See how HiMama can help you document free play by booking a call with one of our specialists!

Carmen Choi

Carmen is the Marketing Coordinator and Preschool Podcast Manager on the HiMama team. She's been working with childcare business owners and consultants for 3 years. She is passionate making connections that empower the ECE Community through knowledge-sharing to support better outcomes for children, their families, and society!

One comment

  • L says:

    For all that it is often maligned and misunderstood, I support preschoolers wrestling as a form of rough-and-tumble play!

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