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Challenging Play: why children love it and need it

Linda Blair, clinical psychologist and parenting expert, tells us how challenging or ‘risky play’ can help build a child’s confidence.

Think back to when you were the same age your child is now and see if you can remember an occasion when you felt really proud and pleased with yourself. Was it when you were playing a familiar game or doing something you’d done many times before? Or was it when you really stretched yourself, achieved something difficult or accomplished something new?

Balance risk-taking with safety

In our efforts to ensure our children remain safe, we sometimes overlook the fact that they also need and desire challenges. They need to stretch themselves beyond what they’ve always done and, when they do, they’ll feel that sense of accomplishment you probably remembered when I asked you to think back to your own childhood.

Paradoxical though it may seem, encouraging children to take on challenges will also mean they’ll be safer in the long run, according to research by Mariana Brussoni and colleagues at the University of British Columbia. In their review of studies of what she calls ‘risky play’, Brussoni found play in which children are called on to stretch themselves is associated with better physical and motor skills, greater social health, fewer injuries and a better ability to regulate fear and judge future risks. Children deprived of these opportunities, who are never allowed to test their limits, are more prone to obesity, mental health concerns, a lack of independence and decreased judgement and perceptual skills.

We must balance the need to take risk seriously with the need to give our children the opportunity to explore the world and develop their physical and cognitive skills.

Nurture a child's natural instincts

Even Amanda Spielman, Chief Inspector of Education, is concerned. In a speech to the Nursery World Business Summit in London last year, she expressed her worries about the current trend for creating ‘overly risk-free environments’. Children’s ‘natural instinct to discover and explore,’ she went on, ‘should not be stifled’. Instead, we must balance the need to take risk seriously with the need to give our children the opportunity to explore the world and develop their physical and cognitive skills.

The meaning of 'risky play'

Just what, then, do we mean when we talk about ‘risky play’? What are good risks, and what are bad ones? Somerset Council, in an article entitled, ‘The Benefits of Risky Play’, describes it well. They define good risks as those that ‘engage and challenge children, and support their learning, growth and development’. For example, providing objects and materials that allows them to create or destroy constructions, giving them the opportunity to try out age-appropriate playground equipment under reasonable supervision, or teaching them road safety skills in real-life situations. Bad risks, on the other hand, are ‘those that are difficult or impossible for children to assess for themselves, and that have no obvious benefits. For example, a toy with razor-sharp edges or faulty playground equipment.


Accomplishment helps build confidence

Finally, not only will our children become more competent and confident when they take on challenges, they’ll also discover what we call ‘flow’. The positive psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, describes ‘flow’ as a state where ‘body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something the individual believes is difficult and worthwhile.’ The result is that the individual feels completely focused, that nothing else matters, and that what they’re doing is effortless. What a wonderful experience we can offer them!

Whether you consider it to be crossing a stream using a wobbly log, sledging down a steep hill or climbing a tree, do allow your children to get a sense of their own boundaries and know that a little challenge is an important confidence-boosting step.

Linda Blair is a Chartered Clinical Psychologist, a Chartered Scientist and a registered practitioner psychologist. She writes for The Daily Telegraph and is the author of five books.

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