The Benefits of Risky Play

By 2018-12-20 23:26:08

A look at why your children should get outside and out of their comfort zones

As our world continues to move forward, with technological advances and more urban spaces taking over, children of today are less involved in risky play than ever before. Parents most likely experienced more time outside, running, jumping and climbing while growing up than their children do now.

What exactly is risky play, and why might this trend be a concern? According to Ellen Sandseter, professor at Queen Maud University in Trondheim, Norway, there are six categories of risks that children everywhere seem to be attracted to in their play. They are:

  • Great heights
  • Rapid speeds
  • Dangerous tools
  • Dangerous elements
  • Rough-and-tumble 
  • Disappearing/getting lost

Natalie Lleras, counselor at Community Center Shanghai, offers this gentle advice to parents:

“I often explain that childhood is a form of practice for all of us. It is the time for us to try out different situations so that we have a reference point about whether things are good or bad. Keeping our children from the opportunity to safely explore hinders their ability to develop resilience, a trait they will surely suffer without.”

Parents can ask themselves if they are prohibiting certain activities based on their own anxieties or the fear of being judged. Parents need to know that these anxieties can be passed on to children, who will internalize the idea that taking chances should be avoided at all costs. 

The more children are allowed to spend time developing skills during risky play, the more they develop in an emotionally healthy way. Unfortunately, over the past 60 years, there has been a serious decline in children actively involved in risky play. Many children of the ’50s regularly participated in and experienced Sandseter’s six elements of risk, without parents fearing for their children’s safety.

Richard Louv echoes this thought in his book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder:

“An indoor (or backseat) childhood does reduce some dangers to children; but other risks are heightened, including risks to physical and psychological health, risk to children’s concept and perception of community, risk to self-confidence and the ability to discern true danger.” 

What are parents to do? If they’ve become so accustomed to hovering over their children, calculating all manner of activities and the potential dangers, it can be very frightening to allow children to let go and have some control over their own play and time spent outside. 

Scott Hossack, Shanghai American School (SAS) Athletic Director and Physical Education teacher, says,

“I believe that risky play is one of the most important aspects to the development of children as learners and their overall wellness. They need a chance to explore what their bodies can or cannot do and figure out what are safe behaviors in an atmosphere where the consequences are somewhat controlled.” 

The facilities at the school encourage safe activities. For example, Hossack shares, “At recess we have tried to create an atmosphere where students are achieving moderate to vigorous activity. We have added age-appropriate equipment that is fun, exciting and challenging. Even the middle and high school students come back to play on this elementary school equipment.”

Additionally, the school’s physical education curriculum integrates elements of risk-taking, with units focused on “enhancing the ability to take social, emotional and physical risks,” says Hossack. For example, activities like Parkour and in-line skating help push students out of their comfort zone. “Not surprisingly, these are some of the most popular units,” Hossack says.

Regina Nicolas, Physical Therapist and Sensory Integration Specialist at The Essential Learning Group encourages parents to get their younger kids moving even outside of school – particularly over the summer months. “Since we focus so heavily on our children’s mental and emotional development from September to June, we find a wonderful opportunity in the summer to focus on other areas of development that can escape our notice in other seasons,” she says.

She suggests games that encourage developing balance and motor planning skills, such as constructing an obstacle course. To help build hand-eye coordination, parents can get out and use archery, baseball and badminton as a means of focusing on hitting a target or a ball. These activities not only develop important skills, they also encourage children to take control of their bodies.

Children are drawn to certain risk-related activities, and it is up to parents to allow kids to experience them fully. While it is not possible to protect our children from all manner of adversity or accidents, if we allow them to take risks during play, they will benefit from heightened self-confidence, better judgment, emotional health and – most importantly – they will have fun. 

Childhood is a form of practice for all of us. It is the time for us to try out different situations so we have a reference point about whether things are good or bad.


Good to Know

The Essential Learning Group:

Community Center Shanghai:

Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods: