Why I love watching my kids engage in risky play outdoors

There’s a steep hill in our local forest that my kids (ages one, four, and six) love to scale. It’s muddy, slippery, and full of tree roots, with ample opportunities to fall, get up, and fall again.

I absolutely love watching them challenge themselves to do this, because I can see how it builds their confidence and gives them a sense of accomplishment. They’re also creating a bond with nature in their formative years, which I hope will help them become stewards of the earth.

In the winter, the hill is slick with snow and ice and they love to see how high they can get before using it as nature’s best slide. Other parents pass us by, and it often feels like they’re resisting the urge to yell “be careful!” But I know something they might not: Once we allow our kids to get comfortable taking risks outdoors, magic soon follows.

We’re feeling a collective grief for the things COVID-19 is taking from our kids right now: sharing a freshly baked cookie with a friend at a local cafe, meandering through a bookstore, entering a world of imaginary play for hours with friends.

Although the pandemic has limited the activities our kids can do, who they can do them with, and the places they can go, remember this: nature is always open.

Not only can adventurous play help our kids stay active, happy, confident, and resilient, it can also ease the anxiety we’re all feeling in this strange new world.

Nature brings out the best in kids

There’s nothing quite like time spent in nature to bring out the best in my kids (and, honestly, the same is true for me). I watch as they get creative, solve problems, and work as a team while getting active, and it is a gift. And it’s absolutely free.

I’m not the only one who thinks this. Several studies support the benefits of unstructured, risky outdoor play for kids. One study, published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, found that play environments where children can take risks promote creativity and resilience, and have positive impacts on health, behaviour, and social development.

Our mental and physical health depends on getting outside in all weather, including blustery winter days and rainy fall ones. It might take me an extra 30 minutes to get all three kids dressed in their winter layers, but it’s always worth it to see them building confidence, getting active, and playing happily.


Related read: Kids need more outdoor play


Let kids show you how capable they can be

When we head outside and my kids start to engage in risky play, I always encourage them to do what they’re comfortable with. My four-year-old wants to climb a tree? Sure. If you’re comfortable doing it. My six-year-old wants to jump from a huge rock? If you feel like you can handle it. I want to show them I have confidence in them. I want them to know I believe in their ability to judge how capable they are without my input. 

Of course, I’m always there if they need guidance. If I notice a tree branch that’s likely to snap, I remind them to hold the tree in more than one place. If the stream they love to cross has high, rushing water, we take notice of it together, and talk about whether it’s a safe option that day. I never respond with an outright “no!” unless they’re in very serious and immediate danger (like if they were to run towards open flames!). 

What we hope for when we head outside to play is a feeling of freedom. I never work against what they hope to accomplish. Instead, I work with them to figure out their limits and the potential outcomes from different choices they make outdoors.


Related read: Be a lifeguard to your child’s risky play


Active nature play helps kids get through uncertain times

We might feel scared to let our kids engage in risky play, but it is actually one of the few normal things our kids can do right now without endless rules. You don’t need a mask to climb tall trees, romp through leafy fall forests, or slide down an icy hill.

When life is unpredictable, nature’s rhythms are calming and reassuring. If you’re feeling like COVID is robbing your children of the future you imagined for them, give them the present moment: enjoy the changing leaves, the winter snow, the new green spring—and the biggest hill they can climb.

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