Like a moth to a flame, my two-year-old likes to take risks. She climbs onto our dining room table, jumps from the ottoman to the couch, and spins in circles until she falls down. My toddler brings this same enthusiasm for risk in her outdoor play as well. You might think that I have a particularly adventurous two-year-old, or that toddlers take risks because they don’t know any better. Perhaps there’s a kernel of truth to those assumptions, at least the first, but the reality is that almost all toddlers are drawn to risky types of play. While there has been a lot of research about the importance of risky play for preschoolers and kids, risky play is important for toddlers too! In fact, toddlers experience risky play in a very similar way to older kids.
In this article I’m going to review the basics of risky play: what it is, what it isn’t, and the benefits of risky play for toddlers. Then I’ll provide a fun list of toddler appropriate risky play activities for your toddler to try at home and outdoors.
About the author
Josée Bergeron is a French-Canadian Métis writer, and mother to five children, ages baby to teen. She also manages the blog Backwoods Mama, homeschools her children, and is passionate about outdoor education, and raising healthy, happy, resilient kids.
What is risky play?
Risky play is defined as any thrilling type of play that carries a risk of physical injury. Researchers have identified six categories of risky play. These six different categories are great heights, high speed, dangerous tools, dangerous elements, rough and tumble, and getting lost.
The six categories of risky play
Great height: Play that includes climbing up to where there’s a possibility of falling and getting hurt. This includes climbing, hanging, or jumping from high man-made structures or natural features like trees and rocks for the thrill of it or to get a different view of the surrounding world.
High speed: Play that involves moving at a fast speed on a device (bike, scooter, skates, sled) or play structure (swing, merry-go-round, slide) where there’s a risk of losing control or colliding with something.
Dangerous tools: Playing with tools that could result in injury if not handled properly like an axe, saw, whittling knife, bow and arrow, ropes, and machinery.
Dangerous elements: Play that takes place near natural elements such as fire, deep or moving water, a frozen body of water or cliff where there’s a potential for injury.
Rough and tumble: Engaging in activities like wrestling, chasing, or play fighting where there can be a risk of being hurt.
Getting lost: Play that involves exploring away from parents or caregivers where there’s a possibility of getting lost.
Risky play is not…
Risky play is not about throwing caution to the wind or encouraging reckless behaviour.
It’s heartbreaking when toddlers get seriously injured so it’s really important to prevent that from happening. However, overprotecting toddlers has its consequences too. Research shows that children that don’t experience any risk are more likely to experience obesity, mental health issues, lack of independence, and a decrease in learning, perception, and judgement skills. When it comes to risky play, it’s about keeping toddlers “as safe as necessary” while still providing opportunities to take age-appropriate risks.
How does risky play benefit toddlers?
You might be wondering if letting your toddler do risky things is really a good idea. After all, most folks caring for toddlers spend a good part of their day saving them from precarious situations. At least that’s how things go down in my house. As I write this, my two-year-old is pushing a chair into the kitchen towards the oven! Don’t worry—I quickly intercepted her.
We parents and caregivers want to protect our toddlers from serious injuries. We want to keep them “as safe as possible,” but what if I told you that letting your toddler engage in risky play will actually make them safer? That idea seems like such a contradiction, but it’s shown to be true. Letting toddlers engage in risky play helps them develop the ability to assess risk and this skill follows them throughout their life. Risky play has also been shown to help develop emotional regulation, physical literacy skills, and self-confidence. All important things for healthy toddler development!
Risky play activities for toddlers
Most of the research and literature about risky play focuses on preschool and elementary school-aged children but, overall, the same ideas apply to toddlers. The one thing we have to keep in mind is that toddlers are still developing key movement and cognitive skills. I would never hand over a sharp whittle knife or an axe to my two-year-old; however, I would let her use a butter knife to practice cutting fruit. When it comes to encouraging toddlers to engage in risky play, we need to make sure the activity is appropriate to their physical and cognitive abilities.
Also, each toddler has a different level of tolerance for risky play. Some things that seem “risky” for my toddler might be no problem for your toddler, or vice versa. This is also why risky play should be initiated by your toddler, never forced by a big kid or adult. And if you happen to have a toddler that dives into risky play, she might need some extra guidance to learn self-control. You know your toddler best!
Below I’ve included a list of toddler-appropriate risky play ideas broken down into the six different types of risky play. Typically risky play takes place outdoors, but toddlers are small enough that some types of risky play can take place indoors too. For that reason, I’ve included indoor and outdoor risky play ideas for your toddler. Now, as you read the list below, you might be concerned by some of the suggestions. For instance, I let my two-year-old climb up onto my dining room table. Shocking but true! If an idea is no-go, feel free to skip over that suggestion.
Climbing things seems to come naturally to toddlers, but they’re much better at climbing up than back down. A little coaching might be necessary to teach your toddler how to down-climb. Also, it’s a good idea to “spot” your toddler when climbing up high heights since she might not understand how much it will hurt to fall down. Here are some “great height” risky play ideas:
- Climbing stairs, a chair, up on a table, and onto a couch
- Hanging from a low branch of a tree
- Clambering up the climbing features of outdoor play parks
- Climbing on or over small boulders
- Visiting an indoor bouldering or climbing gym
Toddlers experiment with high speed as soon as they learn to run. Those first sprints often end in scraped knees and tears but toddlers soon get the hang of moving their little legs quickly. Other speedy activities your toddler can try include:
- Spinning in circles
- Running down a gentle grassy slope
- Swinging on a toddler swing or tire swing
- Learning how to ride a tricycle or run bike
- Going down a slide at the park
- Sledding down a snowy hill
- Playing tag
I would not recommend handing toddlers a sharp knife or axe. They don’t have the strength or dexterity to handle those kinds of tools just yet. However, there are a handful of “dangerous tools” that toddlers can try using that will pave the way to using more dangerous tools in the future. Your toddler can try:
- Snipping paper with preschool scissors
- Cutting soft fruit with a butter knife or nylon kitchen knife
- Hammering golf tees into a box or the lawn with a wooden mallet or small hammer
Near dangerous elements
Letting a toddler get close to dangerous elements might seem like a bad idea, but there are ways of introducing dangerous elements in an age-appropriate way. Here are a few ideas:
- Gathering sticks to help you make a campfire
- Learning how to roast a marshmallow over a fire with assistance
- Playing in a water play park
- Splashing around at the edge of a lake, ocean, or creek
- Playing around or in a deep puddle of water
- Walking on icy terrain
Rough and tumble
Some toddlers love rough and tumble play, others less so. Gauge your toddler’s interest for this activity while:
- Wrestling gently on a soft surface with a parent
- Setting up a toddler-friendly obstacle course indoors or outdoors
- Going to a toddler gymnastics tumble class
Toddlers start to experiment with the idea of “getting lost” early on by hiding under a blanket or under a bed. This type of play can be encouraged with other fun “getting lost” activities like:
- Playing hide-and-seek inside your home
- Making a fort inside or outside to play in
- Visiting a new park or trail and letting your toddler take the lead
Wrapping it up
Helping your toddler explore different aspects of risky play is great for their cognitive, emotional, and physical development. If you still have questions about risky play, check out some of the articles below. Also, feel free to ask any questions or leave a comment below.