Outdoor Risky Play is Good for Kids

by Josée

“Mom look at me!” shouts my daughter. I turn around to find her leaping from a rock. For a moment all I see are the wet slippery rocks and cold water below her. She reaches up towards the sky with a smile stretched across her face. She makes the jump and I exhale. I smile her and shout “Wow! That was a big jump. How do plan on getting back?”. She grins and leaps back with ease.

Play is important part of childhood development and learning. It gives children the freedom to try new things, explore, interact with others and test their limits. When kids play outside freely something interesting happens, they’re drawn towards a special type of play: Risky Play.

What is Risky Play?

Risky Play is a thrilling and exciting type of play where children encounter unknowns and possible hazards that carry a risk of physical injury.

Here in North America, many parents, caregivers and educators aren’t fans “risky play”. When it comes to kids, anything “risky” makes many of us feel uncomfortable. We are constantly worrying about our kids getting hurt, sick, lost or abducted, and the fear of litigation makes matters even worse. We protect our kids by creating safe play spaces, making safety rules and regulation, keeping kids indoors and closely supervising play time. While these things are happening we’re forgetting something important: play, including risky play, helps kids learn, grow and live healthier and happier lives.

Risky Play Does Not Mean Ignoring Safety!

Risky play is not about exposing children to situations that can result in serious harm or danger! Parents, grandparents and educators need to teach children how to be aware of risks and how to manage these risks appropriately to avoid serious injury. This can be done by helping children to develop awareness of their physical surroundings, to think critically about their actions and to problem solve when they do encounter challenges.

For suggestions to help children develop awareness and problem solve read: Stop Telling Kids to “Be Careful!” and What to Say Instead.

Adults should try to eliminate hazards that children cannot see or manage without removing all risks, so that children are able to meet challenges and choose to take risks in relatively safe play settings. This means finding the balance between those risks that foster learning and the hazards that can result in serious injury.1

The Benefits of Risky Play

Since my childhood I’ve seen a drastic change in play spaces. Gone are the towering monkey bars, swings with extra long chains, teeter-totters and high balance beams. Most have been replaced with “safer” alternatives, but despite safer play grounds most kids still engage in risky play – why? Risky play is an important part of childhood development. It’s how children investigate and experiment with their surroundings and learn how to handle risky situations.2

There are six main categories of risky play and then all benefit kids in different ways, generally risky play has been shown to:

  • Increase physical activity3
  • Improve motor skills
  • Develop depth and movement perception
  • Develop coping skills
  • Reduce anxiety4
  • Improve social behaviour and conflict resolution
  • Increase independence and confidence
  • Regulate aggressive behaviour

Adventure playgrounds and loose parts playgrounds, which support some exposure to “risky” elements, lead to an increase in physical activity and decrease in sedentary behaviours. – ParticipACTION

The 6 Types of Risky Play

Most parents can identify risky play immediately. It usually makes us yell out warnings and intervene quickly. Risky Play has been categorized into six groups which I’ve listed below, along with some examples.

1. Great Heights

  • Climbing trees, play structures, ropes, boulders or ladders
  • Balancing on high beams
  • Hanging from bars or branches
  • Swinging on swings or ropes
  • Jumping off a swing, play structure or boulder

2. High Speeds

  • Running down a hill
  • Riding a bike, skateboard or scooter fast
  • Spinning on a merry-go-round
  • Sledding of skiing down a hill
  • Sliding down a big slide at the park

3. Dangerous Tools

  • Using sharp tools like knives, axes and saws
  • Playing with ropes and pulleys
  • Hammering nails
  • Using a bow and arrow

4. Dangerous Elements

  • Playing near or in rushing, deep or icy water
  • Starting a fire
  • Walking along or on top of boulders and cliffs

5. Rough-and-Tumble

  • Wrestling
  • Play fighting with sticks

6. Disappear or Get Lost

  • Playing hide-and-go-seek
  • Exploring alone

Risky Play – 5 Tips for Parents

1. Find Balance.

Risky play does carry risks for minor injuries but it can also help your child learn, grow and develop valuable skills. It’s important to reduce or remove any serious hazards from your child’s way while still giving them the choice, when appropriate, to engage in risky play.

2. Give Choices.

It’s important to provide opportunities for risky play. Some outdoor play spaces incorporate risky play elements and are worth seeking out. One great example is Terra Nova Adventure Play Environment in Richmond, British Columbia, Canada. Look for opportunities to engage in risky play in nature (hanging from a tree branch, walking along a fallen log, clambering over big rocks). Also, if a child shows an interest in dangerous tools and elements (fire) find age appropriate ways for them to learn how to use them.

Children enjoy learning how to whittle wood.

3. Know Your Child.

Every child is different. Young children will engage in risky play differently than older children. As children grow older they become better at judging risky situations and are less likely to injure themselves (if they’ve been given the chance to engage in risky play). Some children are more cautious than others and some are more prone to injuries. You know your child best.

4. No pressure.

Children should never feel pressured or coerced into engaging in risky play. If a child is pushed into a risky play situation before they are ready it could result injury or cause them to develop fears.

5. Make time for play.

Time to play freely outside and engage in risky play is crucial for children. Choose to make outside play time a priority for your child and family. This might mean committing to fewer extra-curricular activities, or cutting down on screen time, but in the end your child will be happier and healthier.

Play is the highest form of research – Neville V. Scarfe

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