Risky play in a child’s early years was never something that would come up in conversation for past generations.
Now there are researchers actually studying “risky play” and how beneficial it is for a child’s development.
The main reason why people never talked about this kind of play in the past is because when children played freely 20 to 30 years ago, their play was naturally risky.
Children could be seen climbing trees, crossing streams on fallen logs, moving heavy rocks to build a dam in the stream, etc.
Nowadays children’s lives are packed with school, tutoring and extracurricular activities.
When they have some downtime at home it is often filled with video games, TV or texting friends.
Did you know that crime rates are at an all time low through many parts of the world?
This means kids are safer now than ever before when they are playing outside (unsupervised), yet the media spreads fear of random kidnappings which leads to parents keeping their children indoors.
Our society now sees the dangers of risky play and all parents want to protect their children, so most don’t encourage this type of play in the little window of free time that children have.
But this kind of play is actually good for all children and their development.
Without it children are faced with issues such as obesity, an inability to assess and manage risks, poor motor and coordination skills and an increase in mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression.
Risky play is often defined as an activity that can be described as thrilling and exciting. There is a risk of physical injury but there are also opportunities for testing limits and exploring boundaries.
But in order for children to have access to risky play, they must first be given the opportunity to engage in child led unstructured play!
7 Reasons Why Risky Play Should Be Part Of Childhood
It’s A Natural Part of Development
In order to develop, young children must take risks.
A baby takes a risk of falling off of a bed when learning to roll.
That same baby is also taking a risk of falling over when learning to sit. And again, there is another risk when learning to walk. Falling and getting hurt is always a possibility.
But parents understand these risks and know they must be taken so that their baby will learn to walk, run and jump.
I haven’t witnessed any parent that discourages their child from learning to walk or that has put protective gear on their little one who is learning to roll, sit or walk.
However, once these skills have been achieved (they are a necessary part of becoming a big kid, and later an adult) many parents start getting really protective.
I know that I have been guilty of this myself, yelling “don’t run so fast down the hill, you might fall” as my son was trying to catch up to his big sister.
But by trying to protect them we are hindering our children’s natural development.
Animal studies have been done that look at the importance of risky play.
One that stuck with me involved rats being deprived of play.
Apparently these rats grew up to be emotionally crippled.
When these rats were placed in a new environment they often reacted with fear and did not explore the way a rat should.
I know children are not rats, but they do share many similarities when it comes to play, or lack thereof.
If you want to know more about this study and others like it, click here.
Facilitates the Development of Risk Assessment
Through outdoor play that involves some risks, children will learn to assess those risks.
We (Western societies and North America in particular) do not give our children the credit they deserve.
Always sheltering children and directing their every move doesn’t really help them to develop and grow.
Risk assessment is something that children need to learn by doing.
If a child never falls it will be very hard for them to assess situations where falling may be a risk.
Helps Kids Learn About Setting Limits
Nowadays parents and teachers set limits for children. Children do little of this themselves.
When it comes to free play, limits are set for children because the adults around them want to keep them safe.
Did you know that children involved in organized sports are often pushed beyond their limits, both physically and psychologically?
Especially when they are participating at a more competitive level.
For some reason, we as a society, do not bat an eye at this.
Some children may not be ready for the risks involved in competitive sports and may be told to continue to play despite an injury. Obviously this can cause more harm than good.
Children know their limits and through risky play they can work within those limits.
But without the opportunity for this kind of play, children lose out.
♥ You Might Also Like: Nature Play Documentary: An Eye Opening Look At Childhood Development ♥
Teaches Children More About Their Environment
With cities continually expanding and more and more concrete taking over, it is becoming increasingly difficult for children to learn about their environment.
For a family living in a high-rise building in a large city center it is not feasible to send young children outside unsupervised to “explore”.
In these situations, parents will need to take their children to a more “safe” place such as a local park.
However, once there, let your child roam and explore.
Many urban centers are beginning to incorporate “playscapes” or natural playgrounds into areas where there are many children.
Natural playgrounds allow children to use their imaginations as the space uses as little man made components as possible.
And for those living in large cities that want their children to partake in real risky play, check out some adventure playgrounds!
Boosts Cognitive Skills
Researchers out of Florida (Ross G. Alloway, Tracy Packiam Alloway. 2015) have found that when children are participating in activities that involve balance (such as climbing a tree, balancing on a log to cross a stream, etc.) they can actually increase their cognitive skills!
Ross et. al. found that when people spent 2 hours participating in an activity that involved balance, their working memory improved!
Having a working memory that is functioning at optimal capacity means that it is easier to follow directions, especially in the presence of distractions.
Bottom line, encourage your kids to get outside and climb some trees!
Provides Opportunities For Success and Failure
Not all children will want to engage in risky play (but, most do to some extent) as some children are more reserved than others.
While one child may climb a tree like a pro another will sit back and watch.
But after watching several children doing something that looks pretty exciting, the more reserved child will often choose to join in.
During risky play children can test their own boundaries. They will have both successes and failures.
Not every child will be an expert tree climber despite trying several times.
But children need to be given the opportunities to figure this out for themselves rather than having an adult say “don’t climb that tree, you could fall and hurt yourself”.
Builds Motor Skills
By engaging in this type of play children strengthen their gross motor skills, balance, body awareness (spatial awareness) and coordination.
Children who do not have access to play where these skills are both tested and reinforced are often more clumsy, lack balance and coordination, and fear situations where they have to make on the spot decisions to prevent a potential injury.
Is It Possible To Encourage Risky Play In Today’s Society?
As I mentioned throughout the article, it is definitely more difficult nowadays for children to engage in this type of play.
The media has made parents fearful when in fact most places are safer now than they have ever been.
Teachers are afraid of how a parent will react if their child gets hurt at school so there are often many rules about how a child can and cannot play at school.
My family and I took a trip to Germany in 2017 to visit my family.
I was so happy to see that risky play is encouraged there.
The playgrounds in Germany are set up to support this kind of play.
Below are some pictures of these great playgrounds!
It doesn’t help that we live in a society that is plugged in 24/7.
Everyone is in everybody’s business.
Parents are now afraid to let their children play unsupervised in their own fenced in backyards in fear of a nosy neighbor calling the police.
Because of these and other factors we now have to look for opportunities in which our children can participate in the type of play that is crucial to their development.
When parents or caregivers are constantly hovering, children will not take the risks that they may take if an adult were not within arms reach.
So make an effort to take your child to the local park, but sit back and observe.
Encourage them to try things on their own.
Go for a hike and let the kids run ahead of you.
Let your children ride their bikes to the park without fearing that a car will back into them.
Talk to your children about road safety.
While they are young walk behind them as they ride ahead of you.
Risky play is as important in a child’s life as is having access to the latest and greatest STEM Toys!
Risky play in the early years is nearing extinction, but if that is the case what will happen to the development of children?
http://www.earlychildhoodaustralia.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/AJEC0802.pdf (p. 33)
This is a very nice post, I like how you made it simple. Many parents are very scared to let their kids play risky games. But they don’t realize that it can be very important for the growth of their kids. That is how they learn and set boundaries for themselves.
And I think parent still needs to be around for a toddler, just to make the game is safe enough. Because a toddler has not enough experience but after 3 years old, you can just keep an eye on your kid from fa and let him/her explore.
Thanks for sharing
Thanks for your comment! Yes, the child’s age does need to be kept in mind. But risky play for a toddler would look very different than it does for a child in school. For example, a risk a toddler might take is running down a small hill. Yet many parents are often heard running after them yelling “slow down, walk, I don’t want you to fall”. I was guilty of this when my kids were young. I had to restrain myself from saying this too often, especially when they were running down a small, grass covered hill. Of course they would fall from time to time, but this taught them some risk management skills early on! And there were never any serious injuries.
This article is amazing, I don’t have children but I have a sibling who is 9. We live in an environment where at the age of 5 he used to run to the neighbors, but would disappear and one time we searched for him for almost 6 hours before we could find him. We tried to restrict all the kids in the neighborhood to stop getting out of their homes to avoid any risks until we couldn’t handle them in the house anymore. There was something broken in the house on a daily and then he was so dull that we thought it could be a mental problem. A few months later we realized that keeping him in the house was changing him. Kids have to roll in mud, they have to run in rain and fall from tree branches, it helps them learn the real aspect of life – you won’t be dirty forever or and if you fall you will usually stand up again. Am glad I met this article and I agree kids should partake in risky play for their own well being.
Thanks for sharing your experience with your younger brother. I’m glad that the adults in his life realized that play of all kinds, including risky play, is extremely important to a child’s development.
Wow, now I’m beginning to see reasons why I should allow my girl play. So many times I have often asked her to stay away from some form of play considering the fact that she isn’t very strong and is prone to several injuries. Reading through this post make me want to allow her explore and I’m particularly interested in “knowing your limits” and “failure and retrying”. Thanks for this amazing post.
Yes Dane, let your daughter play freely. Risks and some injuries are part of life and this is something that kids can learn from a young age. Of course, keep the child’s age in mind, especially if there are no older siblings around who can help out. If your daughter is still a toddler than you will need to provide some supervision.
Amazing article! As a social assistant I see it daily that people are more and more overprotecting their children. You can already see that this new generation isn’t building a lot of resistance (allergies, diseases, …) and respect for nature. Great that you have taken it upon yourself to bring some awareness and light to the playful world that children are in!
Thanks Virendra! Yes many parents are overprotecting their children these days, but this will harm them more than benefit them in the long run.
Great article. Thank you for sharing your experiences in Germany too. Great playgrounds!
Agree with you, Tanya! Children of this age should feel safety and comfort from their parents. We are their strong trees which they can rely on. Thanks for this post!
The time has come for this type of article! Thank you, Tanya. My “children” are now 46, 39 and 29 years old. The older two are my birth children; the youngest is my adopted stepdaughter. My stepdaughter had never (at the age of 8) even walked in the rain, or played in the snow, or done anything outside of the parental oversight. I coached her to explore on her own. Ultimately, she finished college and worked in the jungle of Ecuador from age 21 to 29! I took my older children backpacking and encouraged them to jump off of rocks into the deep lake water–which was risky but necessary for them to learn the things you talk about. They, in turn, have encouraged their children (ages 8 to 21) to attempt risky behaviors. The three older ones (21, 20 and 18 years old) are incredibly successful in life as a result. Two of the three have garnered 4-year full-tuition college scholarships; and the other is a straight A student (without the scholarship). I’m so proud of all of them. We definitely need to bring children back into living their OWN lives as children, rather than the “lives with strict oversight of parents” from recent years’! Thank you for writing about this!
Thanks so much for your comment Ilene! I too am trying to raise my children to be independent and understand risk awareness. They go tobogganing, dancing in the rain, camping (where they have climbed on big rocks, climbed trees, helped start a campfire, etc.), jumping into deep lake water and many more fun activities. Unfortunately many people nowadays feel like parents allowing children to do some of these things (especially when they aren’t under the close supervision of an adult) are somehow bad parents. My children are 7 and 9 and I send them out to play behind our house (there is a green space, small forest and small pond area) alone. I am able to see them from my kitchen window.
I’m happy to hear that your children are now raising their children in a similar way! Let’s hope more people start doing this for the sake of our children!
Thank you Tanya, for your honesty. I work with Young adults (18-24) and they are years behind in emotional development. I also life coach families and your information is spot on. I have shared this on my social media pages. I discuss this in my book as loss of free play as referenced by Dr. Peter Gray of Boston University. More adults need to understand that some bumps and scrapes will heal, emotional issues last a lifetime. Have a great day, Chris Mahan
Thanks for sharing the article Chris! I hope that we can reach other parents so that they can see how valuable risky play in the early years really is! I have heard of Dr. Gray. What is the name of your book?
Great read, thank you. I have a 4 year old and a 2 year old and find this info really useful as I seem to argue with my wife on a daily basis about what our kids can get up to, particularly outside. I think you have brilliantly ellocuted my arguments as well added a few more, so I’ll be sure to refer to this blog to make sure my kids get to go out and express themselves! Thank you
You’re welcome Mike. There are many parents like your wife and as I mentioned in the article I have almost stopped my kids from doing something because I was afraid of potential danger. (Although in reality the danger was minimal and unlikely) But I also know how important it is for a child’s development to develop risk assessment abilities, among other skills. Even with some boundaries (no playing with matches alone, for example), there are still many “risky” activities kids can and should be partaking in.