The value of uncertainty (risk) in children’s play

Wednesday August 5, 2020

Excitement and adventure, challenge and triumph, exploration and discovery, none are achievable without encountering uncertainty. Nor is it possible to go through life without engaging with uncertainty. Whether you call it scary-fun or risky play or playing with uncertainty, one thing is for certain, it’s an essential aspect of children’s play that we’ll explore in this post.

The value of uncertainty in children’s play

“It is probably fair to say that most theories of human play associate play with the freedom of human beings to express themselves openly and to render creatively the conditions of their lives. In that sense, play is often considered to be a respite from the necessities of life, a stretch in time when the normal affairs of the world are suspended. Compared to those moments when people are virtually prisoners of their daily routines, people at play are said to have broken free to conjure new possibilities of being and, even more importantly, to test the implications of those possibilities in protected forms of behaviour. To play is to create and then to inhabit a distinctive world of one’s own making.”        Henricks, 2008

Children need freedom to play and with freedom comes uncertainty. As humans, we, like many animals, embody a playful behavioural orientation to our environments when young. It helps to think about play as an approach to action rather than a separate and distinct activity in and of itself (Bruner, 1951). Play is a disposition, it does not wait to be expressed at the end of a journey in a pre-designated area; rather it is how children engaging in and experience their lives, how they express themselves and their agency in whatever context they may be. In play younger and older children experience, explore, express and refine their capacities for surviving and thriving (Bateson and Martin, 2013; Edelman, 2006).

In order to protect, create and enable opportunities for playing, it is important to understand what play is. In our previous post ‘thinking about play’ we summarised the unique behavioural characteristics of play – the features of play that make it different to other forms of behaviour. These features include personal control, intrinsic motivation, flexibility and variability, pretence and the creation of uncertainty.

Adults, play and Risk Aversions

Children’s predisposition towards novelty, flexibility and change, and to the creation of uncertainty (Pellis, 2013) is perfectly matched with their need to discover the world around them, and for the generation of experiences that make for a satisfactory life and healthy growth and development. For the most part, adults are comfortable with this interest in novelty and uncertainty. We only have to look at some age-old party games to find examples of adult acceptance and support of uncertainty and risk-taking, for example, blind man’s bluff or what’s the time Mr wolf. When asked, most adults will also recall both the trepidation and exuberance that was felt when daring to have that first go on a good tree swing or riding a bike with no hands. However, all too often, as adults and carers of children, the more we perceive a potential danger the more difficulty we have in seeing the value of the activity. We are to some degree as adults’ risk-averse, particularly on our children’s behalf.

Adults, when considering a child’s play preference will often look to the worst-case scenario to inform their judgement, rather than basing their response on the observable facts in front of them. This often results in the unnecessary curtailing of play opportunities. Worse still is when we instinctively react rather than providing a more considered response. Our immediate reactions are usually based on instinct and intuition; past knowledge and experiences that are so embedded in us that in a flash they can result in an almost unconscious response. These reactions serve us very well in respect of survival. That said, it’s likely many of us would admit to over-reacting every now and then. Equally, we might hold our hands up to the occasional charge of being too quick to react, reflecting, we could have taken more time to think and, having done so, may have responded differently.

When we work with adults to really question and analyse what might be behind their reactions to children’s risky-play, there are two common realisations. Firstly, it may be because deep down, we just don’t afford children’s choices and preferences, self-knowledge and awareness the same respect we do as adults!!! We are perhaps more likely to consider our responses to adults more carefully than to children and may be more likely to err against over-reaction. And secondly, a recognition that we may be unconsciously permitting that which we see value in and discouraging that in which we cannot identify value. In the case of the second point, we see adults falling into that age-old developmentalist approach that suggests playing has some relation to the skills we need as adults and when we can’t easily identify the skills useful to adults to be gained from the things children are doing (be it tree climbing, swinging, no-handed bike riding or whatever else) we discourage their play.

Remember it’s the processes involved in playing that are important not the outcome of the act itself. Consider the swing or the no-handed bike riding. The skills itself may be of no significant interest to adults, it’s unlikely most of us would have ever become trapeze artists or stunt people. But the processes involved in those otherwise seemingly frivolous acts were serious and real. Fear, trepidation, taking the council of your friends, creating a positive mind map of how you would overcome the fear, thinking through the skill and balance needed, focussing energy on the right muscles, developing a cognitive and behavioural approach. Equally, finding out about yourself and friends – perhaps you were always going to be a one-hander, perhaps that swing was outside of your comfort zone, perhaps you found a way to master your experience and felt the personal reward and/or reward from friends for your courage. All formative experiences and all through the relative safety of play. Exposure to uncertainty and risk in play helps us express and refine the systems we use to regulate emotion and respond effectively to stress in readiness for the more significant risks and uncertainty we will face in the real world with all its ramifications. It may seem counter-intuitive but exposure to some risk is necessary for children to develop strategies for coping with it. Enabling children to experience some risk is therefore not only reasonable but essential.

When children generate uncertainty in their play, rather than jumping in and stopping them based on our first reaction, it is a good idea to take just a second or two more to think: do I really need to stop this? what is going on here? how is it going on? what are the benefits? why are the children choosing to do it? are they being cautious? etc etc. Where there is time to do this, we are avoiding over-reaction, instead carefully responding. Responding might best be described as taking time to consider the details of a situation, thinking what processes may be beneficial and what are the real risks, considering potential options and formulating a reasoned response/intervention.

Often when as adults we make ourselves pay attention in this way, we recognise children are aware of possible dangers, are taking steps to manage the risks already, are aware of one another and actively enjoying themselves, and we can begin to identify the range of benefits children may be realising from their play. Routinely we find that when adults take these extra few seconds to look, listen and think before acting, the only intervention /response that is required is to continue applying a little oversight. One thing is for certain, when adults start to pay attention like this they learn about children and play, and their attitudes and behaviours towards children and their play changes.

Why take a risk on play

Rather than the creation of uncertainty through play exposing children to real and significant risk of harm, it enables them to place themselves in situations that have a sense of jeopardy and risk without over exposure to the serious likelihood of harm (Gordon & Esbjorn-Hargens, 2007; Pellis, 2013). In doing so children are continuously testing, exploring and extending their own abilities and the possibilities afforded by the environment around them. As a consequence, there is a high degree of risk management built into playing by children themselves. Children’s risk management processes in play include comprehension, prediction and evaluation, as well as translating that evaluation into meaningful bodily response (not bad for an otherwise frivolous bit of playing ehh?).

The relative safety of the play frame provides an opportunity for children to express strong emotions (Sutton-Smith, 2003; Brown, 2009) and the ‘as if’ element of play (pretence) enables them to try out different roles and identities, and express novel behaviours, skills or approaches. In play, children operate under self-imposed rules and are most likely to try things out that they are not yet wholly capable of. They do this safe in the knowledge that the threat of reprisal or the weight of accountability is less than they would be in the ‘real world’ (Hoffmann & Russ, 2012) (Bodrova & Leong, 2007; Vygotsky, 1967).

The behavioural characteristics of play are also linked with the concept of a growth mindset (Wood, 2013). The ‘what if?’ nature of play enables children to create problems and look for the answers within themselves and with one another.  In the absence of adult prescribed solutions, children can try out many possible answers to self-imposed problems supporting the development of divergent thinking, which is itself a proxy for creativity (Bateson, 2013).

Throughout life, there is nothing more certain than we will be faced with uncertainty and challenging experiences that will make us anxious, nervous, uncomfortable, even scared. Playing with uncertainty and engaging with risk through play is the perfect training ground for a life full of uncertainty.

Picture Credits:

Thanks to The Gwenfro adventure playground for the pictures used in this post.


Bateson, P., and Martin, P. (2013) Play, playfulness, creativity and innovation. Cambridge: University Press.

Bodrova, E., & Leong, D. J. (2007). Play and early literacy: A Vygotskian approach. Play and literacy in early childhood: Research from multiple perspectives, 185-200.

Brown, F. (2003) Compound flexibility: the role of playwork in child development. In: Brown, F. ed. Playwork: Theory and Practice. Buckingham, Maidenhead:Open University Press, McGraw-Hill Education.

Bruner J S, Jolly A and Sylva K (1976) ‘Play: Its Role in Development and Evolution’, New York: Penguin

Edelman, G. (2006) Second Nature: Brain Science and Human Knowledge. Newhaven: Yale University Press.

Gordon, G. & Esbjorn-Hargens, S. (2007) Are we having fun yet? An exploration of the transformative power of play. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, Volume 47, pp.198-122.

Henricks, H. (2008) The Nature of Play: An overview. American Journal of Play, Vol.1 (No. 2), pp. 157-180.

Hoffmann, J. & Russ, S. (2012) Pretend play, creativity, and emotion regulation in children. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 6 (2), p.175.

Pellis, S. and Pellis, V. (2013) The playful brain: Venturing to the limits of neuroscience. Oxford, UK: Oneworld Publications.

Sutton-Smith, B. (2003) Play as a parody of emotional vulnerability. In: Roopnarine, J. L. ed. Play and Educational Theory and Practice, Play and Culture Studies Vol 5. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1967). Play and its role in the mental development of the child. Soviet psychology5(3), 6-18.

Wood, E. (2013) Play, Learning and the Early childhood Curriculum. 3rd ed. London: Sage.

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