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Why Risky Play is a Good Thing

Martin Paul BSc Kin (Hons)

Think back to when you were 10 or 12 years old.  Where were you playing? Did you have adult supervision? Did an adult even know where you were? Was there an element of risk in what you were doing? Now, here’s the most important question. Did someone require medical attention? 

If I were to answer these questions, the answers would be as follows:

  • I played mostly outside.
  • Rarely was there an adult supervising the activity.
  • Sometimes an adult knew my whereabouts.
  • More often than not, there was an element of risk.
  • I don’t recall anyone getting hurt.

What is Risky Play?

Risky play can be described as thrilling and exciting forms of play that involve a real or perceived risk of injury. The risks could include climbing height; high speed; the use of dangerous tools such as saws or a pocket knife; playing around dangerous elements such as water and rocks; or typical rough and tumble play. 

There are all kinds of risk, and not all kinds of risk are bad. Take for example when your child climbs a tree, there are inherent risks from a fall. However, children are aware of their abilities and limitations. A child that climbs a tree will only climb as far as they are comfortable and will rarely require assistance in descending. This is what we call risky play.  

Studies indicate that, on average, a child would need to play for 3 hours a day over a ten-year period in order to sustain an injury requiring medical attention. In the worst case, that injury would amount to a broken arm. Don’t get me wrong, an injury is not a good thing. But risky play can help your child develop resiliency or the ability to overcome adversity.  For example, if a 7 year-old breaks an arm climbing a tree, he will eventually return to and continue to engage in physical activity. The broken arm will not stop him from taking future risks.  In fact, he’ll learn from the fall and improve his climbing skills.

Encouraging risky play only encourages more play.  When we place a limit on what our child can do outside, they will find it difficult to have fun. Research has shown that when children are allowed to play outside, they move more, sit less and play longer. This can lead to improved cholesterol levels, blood pressure, body composition, bone density, cardiorespiratory and musculoskeletal fitness and mental health.

We all want to protect our children from getting hurt. But sometimes, that can get in the way of their healthy development and play. Keep your child informed of the potential risks, but encourage your child to explore their limits. Remember that play should not be as safe as possible but rather as safe as necessary.