Allowing our children to gradually grow into their abilities with risky play teaches them to trust themselves—and allows us to trust them too. But just because we allow our children to engage in risky play doesn’t mean other parents will feel the same way.
Here’s how to navigate these tricky situations—while still allowing your child to thrive in the way that’s best for them.
Picture this scenario. I’m chatting with another parent in the school yard while our kids run free in the field after school, when she notices that my six-year-old isn’t in view anymore and shares her concern.
“Don’t worry,” I tell her. “I know exactly where he is. In that tree.” I point.
There is the telltale sign of leaves rustling, and even more telling is the fact that his shoes have been discarded by the tree’s base. “My feet are more grippy,” he always explains.
My casual comfort with his climbing (especially barefoot) seems to surprise her, and when her own child attempts to get up the tree too, all bets are off. This is clearly not something she wants her child doing, but that doesn’t mean I need to tell my son to get down—and here’s why.
Different families have different rules, and that’s okay.
It’s a scenario I’ve become familiar with as it’s happened countless times to me, a parent who allows risky play. And I always come back to these thoughts before deciding how to handle any given situation.
Remind myself of the benefits of risky play
The benefits of risky play are many and varied. I know this because of years of parenting this way, but also because of the research on the benefits of this type of play. I know it’s great for confidence-building and problem-solving, and that it helps my kids navigate tricky situations that come up in day-to-day life.
Assess whether my child is actually in danger or putting another child in danger
If the answer is yes, I will immediately intervene. It’s never acceptable to risk their safety or anyone else’s. In the low-stakes after-school scenario, my child was casually and comfortably enjoying tree- climbing, not harming anyone, and not unsafe himself. If the other child’s parent doesn’t want them engaging in this type of play, it’s up to them to parent in the way that works for their family.
Dr. Mariana Brussoni, a developmental psychologist at the University of British Columbia and a leading proponent of children’s risky play, encourages parents to act like a lifeguard watching swimmers at the beach when they watch their child at play: the lifeguard doesn’t intervene unless someone is really at risk for harm. Here’s more on how to be a lifeguard to your child’s risky play.
Think about whether I’m trying to people-please or I’m actually concerned
It’s not my job to make other people more comfortable with my parenting decisions. This is easier said than done, but when it comes down to it, I’m the person that knows my children, and our family culture, best. When I make intentional parenting choices that seem careless to others, I can choose to explain it or let it go, but I don’t have to change the way I parent to make others happy.
Let go of judgment and embrace curiosity
In parenting, I’ve found that many people judge, but just as many are genuinely curious. If you think someone is interested in learning about risky play, you can mention why you allow it. For example, “I know it looks risky! But we’ve slowly worked up to this and have learned to trust her ability to listen to her body” is a great option. Or “I read this article years ago that really inspired me to allow this type of play. I can send it to you if you’d like.”
Find a community of like-minded parents
When my kids were younger, we joined a “forest explorers” group in our community, and it made all the difference. My kids were able to enjoy the play they love with other kids who enjoy it too. And I met lovely new friends who understand why I love risky play for my kids.