The Thrill of the Challenge

On a few occasions this week I have observed children playing games that involve challenge. From the thrill of the chase in “What’s the time, Mr Wolf?” to the “Capture the Flag” activity, children love to play games where there is an element of uncertainty, where there is a risk.

Children have an innate urge to play from birth right through to teenage years and they are often at their happiest when playing or just being with their friends. Taking risks, or being challenged, is a necessary part of playing for development. Children will often want and need to create challenge and uncertainty in their play. As adults we can probably remember the thrill and excitement of testing boundaries – climbing higher, swinging harder, balancing on beams, jumping rivers, running faster, swimming further or doing something for the first time. Children need the freedom to play how they choose and this includes taking risks and engaging in risky, challenging play. Children, regardless of their culture, background or ability will need to take risks physically and emotionally and for us as parents, a balanced, thoughtful approach to supporting challenging play is a helpful starting point.

Challenging, risky play can look different for different children dependent on their age, stage or ability. One child’s idea of something challenging might be something easy for another. Children need to explore their limits, try out new experiences and develop their capabilities. This will be evident from a very young age. Children would never learn to crawl, walk, climb stairs or ride a bike if they were not afforded the opportunity to stretch and challenge themselves.

As adults it is our responsibility not only to keep children safe but also to help them to manage and experience challenging, risky opportunities through play. Through this type of play children will learn to be emotionally and physically resilient, thus helping them to manage difficult situations, resolve disagreements between each other and keep themselves safe. This type of play raises their resilience, self-esteem and self-confidence. It also encourages their curiosity, helps them to be more physically active and gives them a sense of independence. The development of these skills in early childhood will help equip children to manage risk safely throughout their lives.

Our desire to keep children safe can sometimes result in too many limits or restrictions being placed on children and this can interfere with their healthy development.

Challenging, risky play for children will involve the thrill and excitement of testing themselves or stretching their limits. Children engaging in what can be perceived as ‘risky’ play may be

•        Playing with heights (such as climbing trees or structures)

•        Playing with elements (such as building a fire or playing with water)

•        Playing at speed (such as running, cycling or skating really fast)

•        Using tools or loose parts (such as hammers, scissors, saws, tyres, crates or pallets)

Children will occasionally have minor accidents such as cuts, grazes and bruises when taking part in some of these types of activities. We, as adults, need to recognise their desire to test their boundaries, remember our experiences as a child and consider the life-long benefits of those experiences.

This week the children in Year 4 visited Horseshoe Lake in Yateley for a morning of watersports. The images on FaceBook paint a clear picture of total engagement and enjoyment, yet they are actively testing themselves, pushing their boundaries and learning. Children in Years 5 to 8 have all been away this week on various residential trips, again testing themselves with high ropes, water activities, rock climbing and even an SOS emergency role play. A film showcasing the children’s activities this week will be published on Friday evening. It demonstrates challenge at its very best. It encapsulates the importance of learning through challenging play.