If you’re like most parents, you take your job of protecting your child pretty seriously. You've got safety covered from childproofing your home to watching your child like a hawk.
And yet to your astonishment and surprise, your child seems to love:
Jumping from high places
Banging stuff together
Hanging upside down
Wrestling with siblings
Anything with fire or water
Hate to break it to the safety-conscious part of your brain… but kids seek out risky play with passion. And here’s the kicker, this love of thrilling adventure is not a bad thing.
Risky play is a form of unstructured play that includes physical challenges and aspects of both thrill and fear¹. Usually taking place outdoors, risky play might include play that involves heights, speed, tools, or being near elements like fire, water, or uneven terrain².
An essential piece of the puzzle of what makes risky play work is the possibility of some physical danger, even if it’s only a little. Without some physical risk, you don’t have the fun or learning of true risky play.
If you are freaking out inside, we hear you. We’re not suggesting you let your kid run wild in hazardous places unattended. We’re not encouraging true danger. That being said, the research is clear (and there’s a lot of it!!) — this type of play is powerful! It’s how kids get to explore their limits and discover how to evaluate and navigate risks.
So what’s the trade-off for this slight physical risk? Is there an upside that makes a few bumps or bruises worth it? The answer is a resounding “YES!” In terms of long-term benefits, research is overwhelmingly clear — kids that have opportunities for risky play know their own limits, avoid significant injury and actually NEED opportunities for risky play.
Keep reading to learn why risky play is disappearing, why it’s important, and what you can do to bring it back for your child.
Risky play is on the decline
The amount of risky play has been on a steady decline over the past few decades³. Your parents have probably told you stories about freely wandering through the woods with the neighborhood kids and creating all sorts of thrilling adventures.
Compare that to play today and childhood looks very different. Kids aren’t getting the chance to independently cross streets, roam the woods, or play with fire⁴. Why is that?
As a culture, we’ve gone into protection mode with fears of kids getting lost, kidnapped, or injured³. While it’s important to be mindful of these concerns (these concerns are valid to consider), it’s important to still give kids opportunities to play to their full potential — including offering play opportunities with physical thrill.
In addition to safety concerns, free outdoor play has been swapped for more structured activities. So instead of climbing trees in the woods, kids are safely seat belted in the backseat of the car on their way to a sports practice.
On top of more structured activities, kids are simply using tablets and watching television more. Which again has reduced the amount of time for unstructured play — especially independent outdoor play that leads to good, thrilling experiences of learning and growth.
Kids might be safer, but that doesn’t mean they’re better off.
What makes risky play so important?
First off, kids delight in risky play for a reason⁵. The combination of thrill, fear, and physical challenge meets specific childhood needs for sensory experiences. In fact, kids will seek out even riskier play when not given safe outlets for risky play like those available in nature or on a playground.
A big piece of risky play is recognizing that kids innately know their own capabilities so they both know how to stay safe and how to push their own growth. Within the experience of risky play, kids push their own boundaries because of their inner desire to gain physical and emotional skills. It’s pretty remarkable when you think about it.
The world is not neat and tidy or risk-free. Play with elements of physical risk teaches kids important judgment skills. They learn to evaluate and respond to situations⁶. Think of it this way - when age-appropriate, it’s better to teach your child how to cross the road than to tell them to forever avoid crossing all roads.
That’s really how risky play works. Kids learn to avoid or adjust to hazards in the environment in a low-risk context⁶. They learn how to jump safely by jumping on the playground. They learn how to use tools safely while pounding rocks. The consequence of a bruised knee when impulsively rushing to climb a tree teaches a child to slow down and identify a better path forward.
In fact, the hands-on, situational nature of risky play is the ideal way to support kids with ADHD who might struggle with impulsiveness, attention, and risk awareness.
In addition to safety awareness and physical skills, through risky play, kids learn emotional skills like resilience, bravery, and handling disappointment.
Play with real risk, thrill, and consequences is how kids learn so they become capable, independent, and able to navigate real-world challenges¹.
The adult role in supporting your child’s risky play
Allowing risky play DOES NOT mean you simply unleash your child to do whatever they want. The aim is really to provide low-risk opportunities in alignment with their skills.
As the adult, your role is to strike that balance between giving your child independence while being actively involved in the background⁷. You’re consciously stepping back but still doing the important job of providing emotional support, facilitating problem-solving, and evaluating potential safety concerns or hazardous conditions.
This means being aware of any real potential hazards that your child might not be able to anticipate. Especially new or unexpected hazards like rotting logs that could give way, explaining how to safely use a new tool, or pointing out how wet surfaces might be slippery.
And then trust your child.
Let them be the leader in terms of picking their level of risk. This means not forcing them to take risks but not stopping them from pushing some boundaries.
As parents, you might find yourself holding your breath or fighting the urge to step in. It’s normal for your protective instinct to kick in. What you don’t want to do is pass on that anxiety to your kids. We want them to safely charge forward into life to try new things and trust their body and not shrink away in fear.
One of the best ways to counter protective reactions is to change the words you use when supervising your child during outdoor play.
The goal is to increase your child’s awareness and thoughtfulness in a way that demonstrates trust. Also, try to swap out phrases that focus on negative outcomes for phrases that highlight future success.
Here are some examples:
The thrill of play for happy and successful kids
Keep in mind, there are different levels and types of risk activities. Every kid’s risk tolerance is different. Just like their physical abilities are different. Some kids lean towards overestimating their abilities and need help to reign in their ambitions.
Other kids are more cautious and need more time and reassurance to get their feet off the ground. As they grow more confident in their physical skills, safe risk-taking in play also begins to blossom.
More than thrill and delight, with each successful outdoor adventure, your child learns self-confidence, self-awareness, problem-solving skills, and independence. Which is what we want for our kids!
At Bearfoot OT, vibrant outdoor play is just one of our ingredients for helping children with sensory, motor, emotional, or social challenges.
Sign up here to get our program updates and tips to support your child’s physical and emotional development.
Love references? Us too!
Brussoni, M. (2020). Outdoor Risky Play. Education Research: Education in the Digital Age. Chapter 4, https://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/sites/1b5847ec-en/index.html?itemId=/content/component/1b5847ec-en#section-d1e7707
Kleppe, R., E. Melhuish and E. Sandseter (2017), “Identifying and characterizing risky play in the age one-to-three years”, European Early Childhood Education Research Journal, Vol. 25/3, pp. 370-385, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/1350293x.2017.1308163.
Sandseter, E. B. H., & Kennair, L. E. O. (2011). Children’s Risky Play from an Evolutionary Perspective: The Anti-Phobic Effects of Thrilling Experiences. Evolutionary Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1177/147470491100900212
Shaw, B. et al. (2015), Children’s Independent Mobility: An International Comparison, Policies Studies Institute.
Sandseter EBH. Children’s Expressions of Exhilaration and Fear in Risky Play. Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood. 2009;10(2):92-106. doi:10.2304/ciec.2009.10.2.92
Brussoni, M., Olsen, L.L. Pike, I.; Sleet, D.A. Risky Play and Children’s Safety: Balancing Priorities for Optimal Child Development. Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 2012, 9, 3134-3148. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph9093134
Jelleyman, C., McPhee, J., Brussoni, M.; Bundy, A., Duncan, S. A Cross-Sectional Description of Parental Perceptions and Practices Related to Risky Play and Independent Mobility in Children: The New Zealand State of Play Survey. Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 2019, 16, 262. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph16020262