When children test their own boundaries in thrilling play, they develop self-confidence, resilience and risk management skills Author provided (No reuse)
“Be careful!” “Not so high!” “Stop that!”
Concerned parents can often be heard urging safety when children are at play. Recent research suggests this may be over-protective and that kids need more opportunities for risky play outdoors.
Risky play is thrilling and exciting play where children test their boundaries and flirt with uncertainty. They climb trees, build forts, roam the neighbourhood with friends or play capture the flag. Research shows such play is associated with increased physical activity, social skills, risk management skills, resilience and self-confidence. These findings make intuitive sense when you watch children at play.
Importantly, it’s not up to parents or experts to decide what is risky play for a particular child.
Rather, children need to be given the mental and physical space to figure out appropriate risk levels for themselves: far enough that it feels exhilarating, but not so far that it becomes too scary.
My years as an injury prevention researcher have left me well aware of things that can go wrong and how to prevent them from happening. But because I have a doctorate in developmental psychology, I am also concerned that we are keeping our kids too safe. Preventing our kids from exploring uncertainty could have unintended negative consequences for their health and development, such as increased sedentary behaviour, anxiety and phobias.
Many of the parents I’ve spoken to through my research recognize the importance of risky play, but can be overwhelmed by worry about the possibility of serious injury or abduction. They also worry that someone is going to report them to the authorities for letting their child take risks. These worries make it hard for them to let go and can result in over-protection.
More recently, I’ve noticed an opposite trend: parents who are worried their child is too timid and not taking enough risks. They want to know how they can help their child take more risks in play.
This concerns me as much as over-protection. Both approaches can increase the risk of injury and harm since they ignore children’s capabilities and preferences. How will children learn about themselves and how the world works if an adult is constantly telling them what to do and how to do it?
There’s never been a safer time to be a child in Canada. The likelihood of dying from an injury is 0.0059 per cent. Car crashes and suicides are the leading causes of death, not play. In fact, children are more likely to need medical attention for an injury resulting from organized sports than play.
Likewise, the likelihood of abduction by a stranger is so small that the statistics are not even collected. In an attempt to strike a balance, injury prevention professionals are moving to an approach that seeks to keep children as safe as necessary, rather than as safe as possible.