Your child is climbing just a bit higher that you’re comfortable with; running a bit too close to the edge of the water than you’d like; or maybe that stick they’re holding while they run past you is a bit bigger than you think it should be.
Often our instincts will scream at us to get involved and stop our children from engaging in risky behaviours.
But with the benefits of risky play to our child’s development being well documented, it is useful to understand how our own anxieties and even our child’s developmental stage and abilities can affect the opportunities they have for taking a risk.
Understanding appropriate risk
University of Queensland Associate Professor Alina Morawska is the Deputy Director (Research) at the Parenting and Family Support Centre.
Professor Morawska says the level of risk that is appropriate for our children is dependant on their own skills, capabilities and gross motor development, as well as the extent to which they have been exposed to risky situations before.
“For example, the ability of a child to safely jump off playground equipment varies quite tremendously between each child and it’s their ability that determines what’s safe and what they’re actually able to do,” she says.
Associate Professor Morawska uses the example of learning to cross the road to demonstrate how appropriate risk is dependent on individual children and factors including their age, cognitive ability and physical skills.
“You wouldn’t send a toddler across the road because their ability to work out what the risk is in crossing a road is simply not cognitively there, whereas with an older child that’s a skill you actually need them to learn so they work out how to safely cross the road by themselves,” she says.
“Part of assessing this risk is understanding our children’s cognitive ability and what they’re capable of doing, which is more than just the understanding that roads are dangerous places.
“For a child it is understanding that they need to look left and right and right again, but also being able to apply that knowledge and work out what’s okay and what’s not okay to do in that situation.
“I’ve seen children look both ways when they cross a road because that’s what they think we do as adults but what they weren’t aware of was that we are also processing the situation and not just going through the motions. We have the ability to understand there is a risk and we are able to appropriately assess that risk.”
Some examples of appropriate risks for children to take include using or climbing on playground equipment, climbing trees, or supervised water play.
“There are some children who are incredibly competent with their physical motor skills and can handle a lot of risky situations well and there are other children who simply wouldn’t be able to,” Associate Professor Morawska says.
“You wouldn’t tell a competent child not to engage in a particular risk, because they’re already capable of doing it and for children who look at playground equipment and to them it looks like Mount Everest, you would need to facilitate some different engagement to help develop their confidence.
“If your child is already quite competent and skilled then you need to gradually build up their level of exposure to risk and it’s a matter of being there and supporting and supervising them appropriately.
“If your child doesn’t have those skills yet or hasn’t been exposed to those situations then you can make sure they are exposed to situations that are set up for them to succeed because you really want your child to experience success because that will build their confidence.”