Benefits of Risky Play in a Sensory Environment
Risky play is such an essential part of childhood and is particularly beneficial for children with learning difficulties and special educational needs. Of course, children need to always be kept safe from potential harm and hazards, but they also need to explore, meet their sensory needs, problem solve, assess their abilities, and take risks. Risky play can be defined as a thrilling and exciting activity that involves a risk of physical injury and play that provides opportunities for challenge, testing limits, exploring boundaries, and learning about injury risk (Sandseter (2007; Little & Wyver, 2008).
Many of the young people we see are sensory seeking and will naturally engage in risky play when trying to satiate their sensory needs. This may present itself in the young person trying to climb roofs, hanging upside down, absconding, balancing, climbing trees, and jumping off walls, steps, or the climbing frame.
The risky play area offers a safe and controlled environment where the same opportunities can be managed risk and therefore provides appropriate options and alternatives to the sensory seeking behaviours sometimes seen. Risky play is a natural part of typical children’s play.
What are the benefits of risky play?
- Risky play allows children to challenge themselves
- Physically – by climbing a little higher, running a little faster or jumping a little further.
- Emotionally – feeling out of control or overcoming fear
- Mentally – learning how to get out of trouble and understanding your boundaries and the environment around them.
Children often seek out opportunities for engaging in challenging and risky play. This happens more so in children with ASD and Sensory Processing Disorder, where the desire for sensory seeking often outweighs risk judgment. Without being able to satiate the sensory needs, a young person remains unable to focus, wound up and usually withdrawn from learning or seeking the sensory input and risks with inappropriate resources within the environment.
Did you know that Risky Play helps children: develop both mentally and physically, nurture their curiosity, with their social development, develop independence and their own confidence, learn their own capabilities, develop balance and coordination, develop emotional resilience, healthy and reduce obesity, increase academic performance, develops self-esteem, and have fun.
“A child loves his play, not because it’s easy, but because it’s hard.” Benjamin Spock (American Paediatrician, 1903-1998)
How does the Sensory Room and Forest school at Bursting with Potential address risky play?
At Bursting with Potential, the sensory room, and the equipment we offer is specifically designed to offer these opportunities of engaging in risky play and meeting sensory needs.
We have a variety of equipment that includes:
- Climbing ladder
- Spinning equipment
- Balance beams
- Weighted equipment
- Soft play
- Obstacle course
The equipment benefits the children by expanding their skills as they climb higher, reach further, or balance for longer, and experience the consequence of taking risks beyond their current ability.
The risk of harm is minimised by ensuring adequate supervision, correct positioning of the equipment (away from windows or walls), crashmats, no overcrowding, and particular “rules” set by adults according to individual children’s level of understanding. The sensory room and equipment are rich in opportunities for children to learn and explore and make sense of the world around them. It is a safe and secure place where children learn to play and gain independence skills.
The vast range of equipment in the sensory room offers sensory properties that can be achieved within the risky play area. These can be categorised as alerting, organising, and calming. These activities can be incorporated into pupils’ sensory profiles as appropriate to meet the individual’s needs. For example, following a circuit of alerting, organising and calming activities, the young person has an increased readiness to learn and is more likely to succeed in the learning environment as their sensory needs have not been met.
Outdoor play is fundamental for children’s health and well-being. The Forest School that Bursting with Potential runs allow children to take risks in the outdoor environment and enables independence in freedom and space to explore and discover.
Many fundamental movements that are often associated with risky play are addressed in the forest school and sensory room environment, such as:
All of which are essential for their motor skills, balance, coordination, and body awareness development.
Children who do not engage in such movements are more likely to be clumsy, feel uncomfortable in their bodies, have poor balance, and fear movement.
Forest school, the Bursting with Potential sensory room, and our equipment are particularly successful for young people with special educational needs. Our role is “to create a play environment where children can engage in movements that fulfil their sensory needs (Greenland, 2006, pgs. 189 – 190)”
Researchers have identified six kinds of risky play:
- play at great heights,
- play at high speed,
- play with dangerous tools such as saws and knives,
- play near hazardous elements such as fire and water,
- rough-and-tumble play,
- and play where there’s a chance of getting lost or “disappearing.”
We feel that this is why forest school, and our sensory room and equipment are so important, as we can incorporate these elements of risky play into our Occupational Therapy interventions.
Playing at great heights
climbing high, jumping down, or balancing at height- is all way of feeling a loss of control and risk. When children/young people are jumping and climbing, they also use the vestibular and proprioceptive systems, which are vital in promoting sensory and emotional regulation.
Play at high speed
Play at high speed is another risky play activity that seems to relate to “losing control.” For example, when riding a bicycle at high speed, there’s risk and excitement with the possibility of either crashing into something or someone or even possibly falling off. Other high-speed examples include running down steep hills, swinging on playground swings, or travelling on zip lines.
Vestibular and proprioceptive systems use therapeutic approaches to increase the sensory sensitivity and avoiders’ tolerance and sensory input.
Play with dangerous tools and near dangerous elements
Are captured within the forest schools’ model of fire building, gardening, water play and handling tools. This type of play increases children’s risk management skills allows them to learn new skills and improves their confidence and sense of responsibility.
This type of play involves managing the balance between playful contact and actual fighting. It can include play-wrestling, play-fighting, martial arts and fencing with sticks. Children learn to explore their vestibular sense and engage their tactile sensory systems in this form of play, and this helps them develop the sensory pathways that tell their body whereabouts in space they are. For Children with developmental trauma, this is a crucial area of inappropriate focus, touch, interaction with others and satiating their sensory systems.
Using the risky play area for rolling down the hill
Where the contact comes from the earth, removes the judging of social boundaries whilst children develop this skill.
To develop social skills, we encourage teamwork whilst using the equipment. We participate in rough and tumble play or tug and stretch activities, supported with tactile inputs and body awareness and coordination.
All activities occur in an environment where the rules of personal space and social interaction are reduced to develop and increase exposure to these skills.
Play where children can “disappear” or get lost
This kind of play refers to occasions where children can explore spaces independently, venturing into unknown areas with the perceived danger of getting lost. Indeed, getting lost in a forest or an unfamiliar city presents real risks for a child, so this type of play challenges children to gauge distances and recognise and remember landmarks for navigation. This also serves as a time out or safe space opportunity for overstimulated or overwhelmed children and need to retreat.
Finding a corner of the platform to sit in, or hide in, feel the fresh air, listen to nature and zone out from the demands of their daily life or school day can provide a reset to these children and young people before these bubbles over to destructive or challenging behaviour. It also offers an appropriate escape for these children who may have engaged previously in absconding to satiate this need.
The risky play presents unique thrills distinct from the excitement of the traditional sport. The benefits are increased physical activity, better social skills, improved resilience, higher self-confidence, and better risk management skills. In addition to providing the sensory regulation required to manage their emotions, manage themselves more effectively and be alert and focused for learning.
Contact us today to find out more about our Forest School and Sensory rooms: www.burstingwithpotential.co.uk/contact/