Increasing research is supporting the idea of permitting your child to engage in “risky play”. The central idea is that much can be learned from play, and giving children opportunities to fall, get hurt, and get lost has numerous benefits for their physical, emotional, and social development.
While the idea of allowing kids the climb high, go fast, and test their limits of independence may appear to be a recipe for disaster, it turns out that by exposing children early on the activities such as climbing or biking helps them develop gross and fine motor skills that enables them to be more physically competent and therefore, less prone to injury, over the course of their lives. An early introduction to physical activity builds lifestyle habits that encourage an active and healthy lifestyle that decrease the risks of a sedentary lifestyle, one increasingly common due to on-screen entertainment.
Engaging in “risky play” naturally allows children to test limits, concomitantly experiencing the disappointment of failure as well as the satisfaction and confidence of success. The possibilities of experience both positive and negative emotions become lessons about regulating emotions effectively and overcoming fears and challenges, including how to try again after failing. In a group setting, children also learn social skills such as conflict resolution, consideration of others, and knowing when and how to get help from others.
When I first encountered the ideas put forth by this movement, I was intrigued. I grew up, admittedly, rather protected from risky play, and I could identify with the desire of having taken more risk and generally, playing more. I ended up walking to school by myself, biking around the neighbourhood without adult supervision, getting a part-time job much later than I had wanted. I could see that this was an area where I wished I could parent differently from my parents.
At the same time, perhaps from my very different upbringing, there were several aspects about some of the ideas proposed by this movement of “risky play” that needed some qualification:
Many of the newer playgrounds in our neighbourhood have been designed with the concept of encouraging risky play in mind. Some of the features of these playgrounds include: wood, rock, or metal rather than plastic building materials; gravel or sand paving rather than cushy foam (so that falls would hurt!) and usually a very high and steep slide that I would have second thoughts going down. Keeping in mind that most of the research done supporting risky play is done with children aged 6-12 in mind, younger kids may need a helping hand to bring the risk down to a level appropriate to their age and physical abilities.
Part of the concept of risky play is backing off enough to allow children to explore independently. At the same time, parental presence and involvement, especially at the earlier ages is crucial to maximize the benefits of risky play. In some circles, encouraging independence seems to be equated to hands-off parenting. But, being present and attentive while children play independently enables jumping in when required, which is as important as backing off enough.
Reaching the next level of physical development requires a child to reach out of a comfort zone and may require verbal coaching and/or even physical guidance before the child acquires the physically skills to engage in play without help. As children are not always good at verbalizing when they need help, checking in at appropriate times may be required. Acknowledging fear and encouraging children to try something or try again, for example, is as important to building resilience as occasionally letting them fall.
Without adults to guide them through the process of resolving conflicts, such as waiting patiently for a turn, or watching out for younger kids, children left to their own devices may default to learning that pushing others gets them what they want or that avoiding playing on a structure where other kids are can be just as fun and maybe even more fun with less conflict. These are hardly the social skills we want them to learn! Being available to offer help when asked also teaches children interdependence.
Risky play presents teaching opportunities for teaching kids a lot about coping with risk. But there are different ways of coping with risk. Analyzing and accepting reasonable risk based on a self awareness of one’s abilities and comfort is one coping method. Avoid risk is another coping method. Which they learn depends a lot our involvement as parents. A child will only find risky play fun if she feels secure that she can get help when needed, and will only continue to engage in such play and reap its benefits if she finds it fun.
One of the biggest challenges of parenting is accepting your child as he or she is. Each child develops at their own pace and some personalities may take more encouragement to engage in risky play. Highly sensitive children, for example, may need much more time observing others before trying something out for themselves. Their cautious and easily over-stimulated natures may make them more risk averse. It can be so disappointing when you go out hoping to introduce your child to all kinds of things you find fun, only to have them not want to try anything! Respecting them and letting them guide the play without going in with too many expectations will generally produce a better experience for both you and your child. A good relationship with mom or dad trumps any benefits of any type of play.
Lastly, to promote this kind of play so that as many people can benefit, being sensitive to cultural differences in definitions and values is crucial. Cultural background impacts our definitions and attitudes towards parenting goals, risk, and injury. For example, one benefit of risky play is an early development of independence and assertiveness in children. While these are generally valued in Canada and Western societies, they are viewed as less important, or even negatively, by some Asian families (thankfully not mine). No one would contest the benefits of a active, healthy lifestyle, but some of the other benefits of risky play are far from universal.
Science presents us with a pretty strong case that risky play, especially in the outdoors and surrounded by nature. The harder part is applying the art of parenting, to know your child enough to know when and how much to back off so they can grow and learn from risk-taking while staying close enough so they will do it again and again.