The job of a parent is to protect and nurture your child, to keep them safe from harm. But sometimes the best way to raise a self-assured kid is to let them take risks. And there’s no better way to do that than through play. Although “risk” conjures ideas of recklessness and danger, research indicates that risky play — usually defined as thrilling and exciting forms of play that involve a risk of physical injury — helps kids develop resilience, self-confidence, independence, executive functioning capabilities, and risk-management skills.
Academic study of risky play over the last 15 years has steadily built the case for risky play. Researchers in Australia, for example, observed that kids showed an awareness of potential dangers during risky play and modified their play accordingly. The children who engaged in risky play used their experiences to more accurately understand how much risk both they and their playmates were equipped to manage, which in the long run facilitated support for each other’s risk engagement and safety.
“Risks are freely chosen by children,” says play researcher and advocate Megan Zeni. “Adults who believe children are competent and capable hold space for children to make their own decisions about how they use their own bodies in play.”
Types of Risky Play
Grounded in the extensive research of Ellen Beate Hansen Sandseter, Ph.D., child development experts divide risky play into eight different categories.
1. Play With Height
What it looks like: Playground equipment such as monkey bars, trampoline parks, rock climbing gyms, jumping off a diving board, rope climbing.
2. Play With Speed
What it looks like: Going down tall slides, swinging, running, spinning, biking, go-karting.
3. Play With Tools
What it looks like: Cutting with scissors, using a drill, pounding nails, sewing with a needle, using electric cooking appliances.
4. Play With Elements
What it looks like: Playing near a body of water, cooking over a campfire, hiking on steep terrain, playing in the snow or on ice.
5. Play With a Chance of Being Lost
What it looks like: Playing hide-and-seek, wandering the neighborhood with friends, going on a hike in an unfamiliar place.
6. Rough and Tumble Play
What it looks like: Wrestling, playfighting, gently running a bike into a wall, smashing objects (ice, old items that are going to be thrown out, jumping on cardboard boxes).
7. Vicarious Play
What it looks like: Watching videos of people doing dangerous things, or observing roofers or construction workers in your neighborhood.
8. Play With Impact
What it looks like: Cannonball jumping into water or jumping off a play structure.
One of the most important aspects of risky play might be that healthy exposure to typical fear-eliciting stimuli and contexts, which has the effect of reducing fear in kids. The researchers argue that overprotection may cause higher levels of anxiety, and that it might be wise to provide more stimulating environments for children to help them develop self-assuredness and resilience.
But even if you accept the rationale behind risky play, implementation of it can feel overwhelming. After all, no one wants to have to rush their kid to the ER because they broke their arm climbing a tree. To get yourself and your kids comfortable with risky play, Zeni encourages parents to consider these four strategies.
Choose the Right Type of Risky Play
There is no shortage of risky play options, but some types are more palatable than others. For example, it’s completely understandable if playing at great heights or rough-and-tumble play feel like too much straight out of the gate. However, some low-impact risky play activities also have practical benefits that kids will use throughout their lives, Zeni says.
“Parents new to risky play usually are most accustomed to play with tools,” she says. “Teaching children to cut with a knife, use a vegetable peeler, or how to cut with scissors are all life skills that parents can immediately recognize as beneficial to their child’s development.” Other options include indulging your child when they ask you to push them higher while swinging or letting them wrestle with their siblings even if it creates a ruckus.
The most accessible entry to risky play is vicarious play, in which kids get that “scary funny” feeling from watching someone else participate in a risk. YouTube is a treasure trove for vicarious play, as are the 33 seasons of America’s Funniest Home Videos available on Disney+. Vicarious play can help kids prepare for other types of risky play; after watching 10 minutes of cliff diving videos, a bit of tree climbing may seem less intimidating.
Listen to Your Kids When They’re Scared
Risky play isn’t a push-your-kid-out-of-the-nest-and-force-them-to-fly situation. Parents shouldn’t force kids into activities that scare them. Building their independence requires listening to what they’re saying and feeling, including that they’re too afraid to try a certain type of risky play.
“The goal is to hold space for them to make their own decisions about how they use their bodies in play when they inevitably encounter a situation that feels uncertain,” Zeni says. “For example, when kids express fear, they have reached their limit and should be encouraged to listen to that feeling.”
Zeni admits it’s a tricky dance for parents that requires them to remain attentive and act as a guide during risky play. Because although risky play can be beneficial, there will be times when parents need to step in to guide their children back to a place where they’re more comfortable. For instance, if you and your child are wading up a stream together — an example of play with elements — you might decide that when the waterline comes up over their knees, it’s time to walk the shoreline for a while until you get to another segment that’s appropriately shallow.
“The Goldilocks zone of beneficial risky play is when the experience is thrilling and fun but still a bit uncertain,” she says. “If a child responds to ‘listen to your body’ with expressions of enjoyment, then the frightening feeling is part of a positive experience.”
Remember Risky Play Is Different From Reckless Play
Some thrill-seeking kids may need to dial back their risky play because sometimes they can’t anticipate all the dangers involved in an activity. It’s the supervising adult’s responsibility to remain alert to hazards and help their kids learn to anticipate them.
Parents can coach kids who seem fearless to listen to their bodies, Zeni says. These kids may need direct instruction on how their actions impact other people or the environment. For example, take a child who is throwing rocks at cars. It might be a fun and thrilling experience, but it also endangers others. She suggests redirecting that child to a “yes space” where they can throw rocks in a more suitable spot, such as into a pond.
But sometimes, parents will need to take immediate action to keep their kids safe. “In some cases, the intervention includes an immediate evacuation from the space. For example, in rural locations, wildlife can appear. Or in urban spaces, drug paraphernalia may be discovered,” Zeni says.
“Risky play requires adult supervision, but supervision that allows children to decide how they use their bodies in spaces that adults have determined are reasonable, without hazards. Parents and teachers who support risky play do not neglect or abandon their duty of care.”
Try Risky Play With Friends
Generally speaking, parenting is more manageable in a community. Parents can rely on each other for support and make decisions from a place of collective wisdom. Parents who are still getting used to the concept of risky play can rely on other parents to help them feel out what works well and what doesn’t, and kids may be more comfortable with risky play if they see their peers doing it.
“I strongly recommend getting outdoors and connecting with your neighbors, either on the street or at the local park,” Zeni says. “The more we have little kids playing on the streets and in the parks with their families, the safer the community becomes for bigger kids to head out on their own.”
Don’t be afraid to outsource risky playtime to trained and resourced professionals. Zeni suggests enrolling kids in programs that encourage unstructured play, both to provide unique experiences for your child and to give you an opportunity to connect with like-minded adults and deepen your understanding of risky play. Forest and nature programs, parkour gyms, scouting, and summer camps all incorporate various types of risky play.
If you’re less comfortable with risky play than you’d like, be gentle with yourself. As you and your kids continue to expand your boundaries, check out Outdoor Play Canada’s free resources for implementing risky play.