Bring on the High Trees, Hot Fire and Hammers: How Risky Play Encourages Resilience

by | Apr 26, 2021

“The way kids learn to make good decisions is by making decisions, not by following directions.”- Alfie Kohn

Let’s take a moment to close our eyes and remember some of our favorite childhood memories.

….Can you see one indelible moment it in your mind’s eye?

Most likely it’s a memory where you were possibly outdoors, without adult supervision and involved some level of risk. Am I right?

Like all mammals, children are highly motivated to play in risky ways and they are also very good at knowing their own capacities and avoiding risks they are not ready to take, either physically or emotionally. As sovereign beings, children know far better than we do what they are ready for. Contrary to popular belief, when we deprive children of free, risky play, ostensibly to protect them from danger, we are actually setting them up for mental breakdowns.

risky play, tool, aishling forest school, forest schoolAccording to Peter Gray, an evolutionary psychologist and researcher at Boston College who has studied how children educate themselves through play and exploration, he argues that opportunities for children to play outside with other children have decreased over the last 60 years, leading to rising rates of anxiety and depression among children and adolescents. Gray’s research states that the decline started at the end of the 1950s, deepened in the 1980s, when missing children began appearing on milk cartons and public service announcements asked if parents knew where their child was. Statistically speaking, our children are safer than ever before, as the national crime rate peaked in 1991 at 5,856 crimes per 100,000 people and has generally been declining ever since. Today’s crime rate is less than half of what it was in 1991. The world, in reality is NOT too dangerous for kids to be independent.

Children are, in fact, designed by nature to teach themselves emotional resilience by playing in risky, emotion-inducing ways. In the long run, we endanger them far more by preventing such play than by allowing it. And, we deprive them of fun. At Forest School, our flavor of good risky play requires our mentors to be aware of, and make important decisions, to remove or limit exposure to known and emerging hazards from the woods. As trained forest school practitioners, we understand that hazards are different from risks and we are aware of the age and developmental differences, with their consequences, in our specific woodland environment.

And just last week, our learners got to engage in the Big 6 types of risky play, which include:

  • Great heights. Learners climb trees and other structures to scary heights, from which they gain a birds-eye view of the world and the thrilling feeling of, I did it!.
  • Rapid speeds. Children swing on vines, ropes, or high-speed hammocks; run down big hills and jump over logs to produce the thrill of almost but not quite losing control.
  • Dangerous tools. Last week, we worked with hammers, whittling knives, bow saws, hand drills, and log splitters, to name a few. These tools are known to be potentially dangerous and there is, of course, great satisfaction in being trusted to handle such tools, but there is also thrill in controlling them, knowing that a mistake could hurt.
  • Dangerous elements. At Forest School, we play with the element of fire almost weekly with the innate knowing that fire is dangerous and must be respected. We also play with the forces or nature, such as wild animals (like our local garter snakes) and last week’s lightning storm and learn through experience how to plan and be prepared.
  • Rough and tumble. Children everywhere chase one another around and fight playfully and sometimes not so playfully, and they typically prefer being in the most vulnerable position—the one being chased or the one underneath in wrestling–the position that involves the most risk of being hurt and requires the most skill to overcome. Additionally, through rough and tumble play, the learners have the opportunity to work on their own body boundaries and when and how to say “stop” and to be heard in a social situation. The learners also gain important impulse control skills to be able to internalize and respond when another learner says “stop.”
  • Disappearing/getting lost. Our learners love to play hide and seek, take time to enjoy an unsupervised “sit spot” and experience the thrill of temporary, possibly scary separation from their companions. Older learners venture off, on their own, away from adults, into territories that to them are new and filled with imagined dangers, including the danger of getting lost.

risky play, tool, aishling forest school, forest schoolAnd within our home in the woods, risk comes naturally and on a daily basis. “The woods are like an enriched classroom — a Gymboree on steroids,” said Lenore Skenazy, a longtime proponent of risky play and the president of Let Grow, a nonprofit promoting childhood independence and resilience.


Still unsure about the benefits of risky play?


It’s understandable, because as parents, we wear our hearts on our sleeves. Trust me, I get it. So let’s turn to some science-backed research to solidify the benefits of risky play in childhood development. These benefits include:

  • Risk assessment skills. Through risky play, children can learn how to judge risks and their consequences. They can learn what’s safe to try and what might not work out. And they can learn how to apply these assessments to a range of different situations. Psychologists have shown that children who engage in risky play are actually less likely to become injured because they’re more adept at observing their surroundings and making good decisions.
  • Emotional regulation. As explained here, children who take risks in play are forced to confront potentially negative emotions, such as fear and anger, and learn how to manage them without melting down or lashing out.
  • Self-esteem. Taking on risks and proving that he or she/they can handle them boosts a child’s self-esteem and helps the child better understand what he or she/they can do in uncertain situations. It also makes the child more confident when handling risks in the future, and feel more in control of his or her actions and environment. Conversely, a child who is never exposed to risky situations may not learn how to deal with them, growing up overly fearful and unwilling to try new things.
  • Taking initiative.The best kind of risky play is the kind that the learner initiates, whether it’s deciding to climb farther or swing higher or simply enter a risky area. This can help your child learn it’s okay to set their own goals instead of looking to caregivers to tell them what to do.
  • Problem-solving and creativity. Risky play often puts a child in a situation where he or she has to assess the situation quickly and make a decision while under pressure. Being able to do this is a skill that will be useful even in less stressful situations.
  • Physical development. Running, jumping, climbing, and other forms of physical effort are an important part of childhood, both to develop the child’s strength and endurance as well as a sense of his or her/their physical capabilities and potential. The surest way to avoid a sedentary child is to make sure that he or she understands from an early age that doing physical things is fun.
  • The ability to deal with failure. Risk means things won’t always go your way. Sometimes you slip, trip, fall short, or chicken out. Learning how to deal maturely when you make a mistake or things fail you is an important part of every child’s growing-up process.
  • Social skill development. While kids can certainly play alone, engaging in risky play in public can help improve a kid’s interactions with his or her peers. Through discussion of what to try and how far to push it, children develop skills in negotiation and leadership and help build up their self-image.

According to Dr. Ellen Beate, an early childhood researcher and professor at Queen Maud University College in Norway, risky play benefits can be summed up like this: “It helps children explore and conquer fears, develop confidence and reduce anxiety.”

So if you want your children to be happy and healthy, to make good decisions (most of the time)…let them play unstructured and unsupervised (when possible), get dirty and take risks. They’ve got it and so do we!


Some Forest School inspired ways to build upon risky play at home:

  1. Give your little a peeler and let them peel their own veggies. We use peelers at Forest School to whittle sticks and many of our learners are very proficient. Be sure that your little knows to peel away from them.
  2. If your little is proficient with a peeler, give them a knife to peel their vegetables and/or fruits. Once a learner showcases their proficiency with a peeler at Forest School, we show them how to whittle with a knife. Again, be sure your little uses knife strokes that are away from them.
  3. Let your child work with matches. When at school, we experiment with lighting matches and seeing which angle holds the flame the longest- is it horizontal, downward, upward? Friendly reminder to tie back long hair.
  4. Your littles are awesome tree climbers- let them climb to new heights. And be sure not to say, “be careful”, as research has proven that saying “be careful” is utterly useless. If you really need to say something, make it specific to the situation, like “I noticed that branch looks slippery and wanted to give you a heads up.”
  5. Let children go for a walk/bike ride/scooter by themselves. Whether down the road, around the block or to a friend’s house- let them have a go at it. I currently let my 6-year-old daughter ride her bike around the block and I got us a pair of walkie-talkies to check in. Am I still worried? YES, but I soothe myself in the many benefits of her growing independence (plus sometimes the dog gets walked too!)
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