Interview on “Risky Play” with Dr. Heather Von Bank

Play is the foundation of everything we do at the Museum. It’s in our mission statement:

The mission of the Children’s Museum of Southern Minnesota is to ignite the natural curiosity of every child through the power of play in a dynamic, awe-inspiring environment. 

One of the concepts we talk about a lot is risky play. Wyatt Miller, Guest Experience Manager, mentioned it in his interview, Kim Kleven, VP of Play and Learning, referenced it when she was talking about plans for the new outdoor space, and it always finds a way to the forefront of our minds when we think about play. While we hope this is true for all children’s museums, there might be a clear explanation of why we share such a focus in this area: one of our board members is a Family Consumer Science professor and a leading researcher on risky play. 

Risky Play girl playing with Hammer at the Children's Museum in Mankato

Dr. Heather Von Bank moved to the Mankato area to teach at the local university after graduating from UW-Madison with a degree in Educational Psychology. A connection allowed her to conduct some research with the Museum, then she had her own kids and became a regular guest, and the rest is history. She has sat on our CMSM Board of Directors since June of 2019 and is currently serving as Secretary, and we continue to reference her expertise as we develop new ways to engage young learners.

Risky play is an important topic for families to learn more about, so we know what is healthy and productive risk and what is actually dangerous. We turned to Dr. Von Bank to give us all the details. 

(This interview has been edited for space and clarity.) 

CMSM: Thank you so much for talking with us! 

HVB: No problem! I love discussing risky play. 

CMSM: Well, let’s get right into it then! Tell us what exactly risky play is. 

HVB: Risky play is play which often makes people feel uncomfortable.

CMSM: Ooooh. What a good way of putting it. Say more. 

HVB: Kids playing in loud ways, maybe, or messy ways, and throwing themselves off of things. It’s the play that people don’t always like, because it disturbs the senses. It’s only allowed in some places–you can do that at the playground, but you can’t do that at grandma’s. You can do that outside only, or you can’t do that, because it makes mommy very nervous. 

Risky Play child development activity in Mankato

CMSM: Oh, yeah, caregivers can definitely relate to that. 

HVB: We’re obviously concerned about our children’s safety, and our inclination to stop them from taking risks is to keep them alive–it goes against our evolutionary brain. But it’s actually the most natural thing for humans to do. The further that we get away from that natural element of play, the less connected we are.

CMSM: What do you mean? Connected to what? 

HVB: To ourselves, really, to themselves as children. Their development and learning. Risky play allows for a lot of cause and effect. “If I do this, then this happens.” It also teaches them problem-solving. “Okay, I just fell when I did that; what should I do differently this time?”

CMSM: That leads perfectly into the next question–what are the benefits of risky play? Why is it such a big deal? 

HVB: Oh, so many things. Risky play helps children develop resilience, executive functioning skills, self-confidence, risk-management and risk-assessment abilities, and more. Every example of risky play is a venture into their own science experiment. They push themselves out of their comfort zone without knowing what the exact outcome will be. Also–and there’s not a lot of research here, but I like to consider it–when they are allowed to engage in risk as children and learn to handle it, they are better at risk-assessment as teens and young adults, possibly leading to better decision-making. If they’ve had so many opportunities to play in risky ways, it’s my hope that they’ve learned from those experiences. They might still take those risks, but they’ll have better processing to decipher things and maybe– just maybe–they’ll handle things like peer pressure better. 

Risky Play in the Tree of Forts at CMSM

CMSM: Those are some huge benefits. How can parents encourage risky play?

HVB: Well, true risky play has to be self-managed. It can’t be pushed or coerced by grown-ups. So it’s less a matter of what parents CAN do and more what parents need to STOP doing. We need to let kids explore and have the freedom to try things. For example, if you grew up on a farm, you maybe had a bit more freedom on your own property–running around, jumping from hay bale to hay bale, and generally exploring. 

CMSM: But parents can’t just let their children run amok, right? What can they do to find the right encouragement and still have boundaries?

HVB: Really, the best thing caregivers can do is interrogate their own feelings about safety and what they’re comfortable with. Think about why they feel that way. 

CMSM: Oof. No big deal. 

HVB: Yeah, I know, it’s asking a lot, but it really is so good for kids. One of the things Museum exhibit designers have shared with the Board is the phrase “as safe as necessary, not as safe as possible.” Could we put another barrier between the stone in the quarry and the children?

CMSM: That raises a good question, too: how do you know when to say stop–that’s TOO risky? That’s dangerous. 

HVB: It’s a matter of hazard versus risk.  Hazards have the potential to cause real harm, like the edge of a cliff, and you also need to incorporate considerations with respect to local circumstances and needs. Some cultures don’t want their children to be messy in any way. No sand boxes, for example. So you find other ways. 

CMSM: This is so helpful and really great information. Where can we learn more? 

HVB: Risky play research is still growing in the US, but the UK and Australia have lots of great resources, which you can find online. 

CMSM: And there’s your TEDx Talk! Can we link that?

HVB: Yes, you sure can. 

CMSM: Thank you SO much. 

HVB: You’re welcome! 

Watch Dr. Von Bank’s TEDx Talk here:

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