← Go back Run, Jump, Climb: Why Risky Play is Good for Children
Published on Tuesday, August 15, 2017 by

If you saw your son or daughter climb to the highest branch of a tree, would you shout out for them to “be careful” or “get down”? Or would you silently observe from a distance, only to jump in if your child needed you?

It is not surprising that our natural instincts compel us to direct our children “out of harm’s way”. It is one of the strongest instincts that evolution has equipped us with, but new research suggests that the overwhelming desire to protect our children from all risk is not entirely helpful. The solution? We need to step back from the idea of “bubble-wrapping” our children and “helicopter-parenting” and reintroduce some risky play.

What is Risky Play?
It is important to note that risky play does not mean allowing your child to participate in activities that could bring risk of serious injury or harm to your child or others.

It is about giving your child opportunities to experience that exhilarated feeling one gets from climbing to a new height in a tree or on a playground. It is also about swinging off a rope into a lake.

Children get the thrill and excitement of pushing their limits and the reward of achievement. This can also include learning to use certain tools and experiencing riskier environments like building a fire or swimming in deep water. 

Risky Play and Emotion Regulation
Through investigation into risky play, we have discovered a theory regarding emotion-regulation techniques. This theory states that by engaging in risky play, young children learn how to regulate their emotions more effectively – specifically fear and anger. 

According to the emotion-regulation theory, play is the way that young mammals learn to control their fear and anger so they can encounter real-life dangers, and interact effectively with others, without succumbing to negative emotions.

How Can You Allow Your Child to Engage in Risky Play?

Step Back: This means you don’t become a helicopter-parent. If your children are climbing, running and playing in a way that is risky but still safe, leave them be. They will soon learn that sliding down that wooden post will give the natural consequence of splinters in their hands, and they will likely stop. 

Keep Quiet: The term “be careful” has little or no meaning to those kids. A scraped knee will heal and the life lesson will remain.

Don’t Intervene: If you see your child playing rough and tumble with another friend and things get heated, if you act like the referee who always intervenes when a dispute arises, your child will never learn to deal with these conflicts on his or her own.

Relish in the Reward: Nothing compares to the sense of accomplishment that a child feels when he or she overcomes a challenge or risk. Help them celebrate that reward!

You may have noticed an influx of natural outdoor play spaces replacing traditional playgrounds. These fantastic play areas allow for a thriving imagination, as rocks become telephones and sticks become snakes or bridges. Natural play spaces allow children to be more active, encourage imaginative play, fine motor skills and of course, risky play. Giving your kids the freedom to take risks, and even maybe scrape a knee or two along the way, is not easy but the long-term rewards will be worth it.

Over recent years, substantial research is being devoted to why risk is essential. For instance, we know that risky play has a vital role in teaching kids how to regulate emotions like fear and anger. Since facing risk is part of life, it is important to allow children to engage in it from an early age so that they are prepared to face life’s challenges later.

Melissa Collins is a freelance writing mother of two girls. When she’s not cleaning up cheerios and play dough, she can likely be found curled up n her hammock with a good book. Check her out at www.mellysmommymanual.com.

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