6 ways kids should engage in “risky” play

6 ways kids should engage in “risky” play

Your child gets ready to jump from the monkey bars and you get ready for a trip to the hospital. Is this a reasonable reaction? Unless there’s a pit of poisonous serpents or a bed of nails below, probably not.

As Dr. Mariana Brussoni of the University of British Columbia points out, statistics show that the likelihood of children having serious injuries through unstructured outdoor play is extremely low. In reality, they’re more likely to need medical attention for injuries sustained in organized sports than play.

Managing children’s “risky” play, and risk in general, has increasingly garnered the attention of parents, educators, health professionals, legislators, and the popular media. Stories of parents allowing their children to ride public transit alone have even made national news. Despite the controversy around these particular instances, it seems no one disputes the importance of children engaging in appropriate risky play. But what exactly is risky play?

Researchers have identified six kinds: play at great heights, play at high speed, play with dangerous tools such as saws and knives, play near dangerous elements such as fire and water, rough-and-tumble play, and play where there’s a chance of getting lost or “disappearing.” Each of these types of play presents some kind of perceived peril that inspires fear in parents.

1. Play at great heights

Jumping down from high places is basically a way of “losing control.” Most kids love jumping down from high places because it presents a mixture of excitement and fear. Climbing trees presents a similar thrill for kids, as there’s always the “threat” of potentially falling.

2. Play at high speed

Play at high speed is another risky play activity that seems to relate to “losing control.” For example, when riding a bicycle at high speed, there’s risk and excitement with the possibility of either crashing into something or someone, or even possibly falling off. Other high-speed examples include running down steep hills, swinging on playground swings, or travelling on zip lines.

3. Play with dangerous tools

In decades past, it wasn’t unusual to see Canadian children using hand saws to cut wood, hammers to build birdhouses and tree forts, and pocket knives to whittle sticks. With increased parent concerns over safety, playing with tools has all but disappeared among kids today. Still, kids tend to love using tools when they get the chance. While there’s always danger of personal injury, this kind of play encourages children to concentrate in order to mitigate the risk.

4. Play near dangerous elements

Play near dangerous elements includes things such as playing near fire, playing near cliffs, and playing near deep water. Not much needs to be said here—it’s easy to see the danger to life and limb posed by these elements! But again, children seem to thrill at testing their limits in these situations and environments.

5. Rough-and-tumble play

This type of play involves managing the balance between playful contact and real fighting. It can include play-wrestling, play-fighting, and fencing with sticks. For example, during a seminal Norwegian study on risky play, a preschool educator informed the children that she knew judo, and she proceeded to demonstrate a judo throw on another educator. The children were thrilled and wanted her to throw them as well. She proceeded to teach them the technique and soon they were happily engaged in wrestling and throwing each other.

6. Play where children can “disappear” or get lost

This kind of play refers to occasions where children have the opportunity to explore spaces on their own, venturing into unknown areas with the danger of getting lost. Certainly, getting lost in a forest or an unknown city presents real dangers for a child, so this type of play challenges children to gauge distances and recognize and remember landmarks for navigation.

The takeaways

Risky play presents unique thrills that are distinct from the excitement of scoring a goal in soccer or hitting a baseball with a bat. As Brussoni says, risky play is about children testing their boundaries and flirting with uncertainty, and they’re more capable than we think at identifying their limits and managing the risks.

What’s the payoff? Increased physical activity, better social skills, improved resilience, higher self-confidence, and better risk management skills.

Risky play may make parents shudder, but our children stand to benefit from it. The challenge for parents is to learn how to support it in a healthy manner.

9 responses to “6 ways kids should engage in “risky” play

  1. I agree to letting children explore independently, take risk, challenges, cause and effect especially when they are willingly showing that interest. Give the children the opportunity to make mistakes and learn for themselves instead of just giving them the answers, allow them to problem solve before adult 👩 ntervene. The children will surprise you of their capability. If they don’t get the chance, or not allowed- how can they go forward not knowing if they don’t try. Risk play goes along way in child development. It can build confidence, strength and curiousity, face feared, muscle strength, learn to negotiation, being a role model for others, face challenges and overcome them, be proud, decision making, motivation and lots more attributes and accomplishments.

  2. Great article.

    As a wise coach once told me – “Smooth seas don’t make skilful sailors.”

    Having kids willingly engage in guided higher risk activities develops necessary life skills, a much higher capability level and a strong, grounded self-confidence. They learn how to harness fear, adrenaline and have a learned command of their natural curiosity. It develops the skill of self-guided risk assessment, it switches their senses on and increases their awareness and focus of their environment and themselves. It also helps them learn how to recover when things don’t go so well, to learn from it and adapt their activities in future.
    • Balinese kids drive motorized scooters around the island at primary school age.
    • I knew a 9 year old cattle station kid, south of Katherine, whose job it was to drive the utility pickup to watering troughs to make sure the cattle had a fresh supply of water. The seat had to be adjusted so he could reach the pedals and see over the dash. He also rode a rather large horse while engaged in back-burning operations on the property.
    • My good friend (a Major in the army and a Medical Doctor) regularly takes his kids hunting, hiking and camping in the bush with him. The don’t complain about the mosquitoes, how hot it is, how uncomfortable it is, how dark it is, how tired they are, how high the long grass is, how bloody or smelly the hunted quarry is. All they know is, they are having a grown up adventure with their very capable Dad and they love it! They do get visibly emotional when they can’t go. They are 6 and 8. I can’t wait to see them as 20 year olds.
    • My daughter could swim unaided to me before she was 2 years old. It really shocked people around the pool because her very rough technique looked like she was drowning. But she knew how to hold her breath, to put her head underwater and paddle to propel herself forward, then come up for air and do it repeatedly. We started swimming lessons at 6 months.

    It bothers me to see some kids smothered in cotton wool and imprisoned by learned helplessness and hopelessness. Parental fear, ignorance and a lack of purposeful guided activity is a much greater risk. Big plants in very small pots can’t grow to their potential.

    Our kids are more capable than most people think they are.

  3. I agree with this article very much. One of the benefits of risky play, mentioned but not covered in detail, is the recognition of an individual’s risk limits early in life. I attended a talk by a local youth counselor in Victoria, BC, Patricia Obee, who said something that really stuck with me -that if children can explore their limits through risky play at a young age, that is better than them exploring those limits when they’re older and have access to cars and substances. She said a lot of things that stuck with me and that is one of them.

  4. Please let’s do our kids a favour and encourage them to explore their own boundaries. Let them run, jump, climb and fall without overreacting and immediately asking “are you OK?” even when knowing they are. Plus, let there be winners AND losers in their daily lives and in their games and sports in order to prepare our kids for the real world. Our failure to guide them in this direction, added to the wave of electronics devices that is ruining their natural development puts us in a very critical position.

  5. I love this approach, and I loved your reply to Patti’s valid concerns. It’s letting our children take risks with us slowly backing off as their abilities emerge. As parents (maybe moreso as moms) we overestimate the dangers of the world, especially with media that constantly blast fear-promoting messages. My nurse friends in particular have had to remind themselves that their perceptions are skewed by the population they deal with. That does make it harder to find the line between too-protective and too risky.

  6. It is difficult for me to get onboard with this given my experience as an ICU nurse who has taken children off ventilators to die in their parents arms. Monkey bars do not pose the same risk as cliffs. There still needs to be some parental insight and supervision.

    1. Hi Patti,
      Agreed — there is no disputing that there should be some degree of parent supervision or setting of reasonable boundaries for play depending on the age of the children and the surrounding environment. For example, if someone knows that there is a cliff near their house, then they shouldn’t be allowing their preschool children to play there without supervision. I’m not sure if you are saying that you have seen children die from playing on the monkey bars? or from falling off cliffs? It’s important also to consider the rate of incidence of children dying from playing on monkey bars or falling off cliffs compared to the number of incidences of children dying in car accidents every year. The CDC reports that the leading cause of accidental death at ages 5-14 years is motor vehicle accidents. Motor vehicle accidents are #2 for ages 1-4 years; drowning is #1. Accidental death within the natural environment only accounts for less than one-tenth the number of deaths attributed to motor vehicle accidents in children age 1-4 years, and it doesn’t even rank in the top 10 causes of death at the other ages, so I think that helps to put things in perspective.

  7. Fantastic advice. I am a parent of three children, headteacher and soon to be grandparent. I hope I can help future generations of children to enjoy the thrill and excitement of the natural, outdoor environment with all of its risks.

  8. This sounds like common sense to me and what I tried to do with our kids. They are now doing it with their children! It helps the children develope core muscle strength , balance and posture control and also how to assess risk. This seems to be very important in this world of ours today1

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