Risky play for children: Why we should let kids go outside and then get out of the way

It turns out play with an element of risk may be exactly what today’s kids are missing Brittany Toole

When you think back to your favourite childhood play experiences, chances are they took place outdoors, unsupervised and while hanging out with friends. But today’s kids spend far less time playing than their parents did.

Mariana Brussoni, a professor at the University of British Columbia and BC Children’s Hospital — featured in The Nature of Things documentary The Power of Play — has spent years researching the benefits of play that have an element of risk. Risky play for children, she explains, is “thrilling and exciting play where children engage in risk without certainty,” and it has been proven to have immense benefits.

The benefits of risky play

Risky play involves kids experimenting and pushing themselves to figure out what will happen, without knowing the exact outcome. If kids don’t go far enough with their play, it’s boring and if they go too far, it gets too scary, Brussoni explains. She likens it to a science experiment, where kids are testing out their environment and determining what they’re comfortable with.

“When we have kids engage in play, it’s really a fundamental way for them to figure out the world — how the world works, how their body works,” says Brussoni, adding that these little experiments are all done “in context of a relatively safe space.” 

Risky play in early childhood can help develop a child’s self-confidence, resilience, executive functioning abilities and even risk-management skills. And Brussoni’s work in injury prevention research shows that engaging in risky play can actually reduce the risk of injury, too.

Brussoni gives the following tips for parents on how to put riskier play into action.

Focus on ‘as safe as necessary’ over ‘as safe as possible’

Consider a playground. Things such as needles on the ground or broken equipment would be cause for parental intervention, whereas navigating a bush with thorns at eye-level, for example, would be something you could involve the child in.

Rather than removing the plant altogether, Brussoni advises assessing the situation together, having the child take stock of the thorns and then suggest ways to stay safe. Balance the risk with the benefits, she says.

Provide guidance

Brussoni suggests that when you walk your child to school every day, it can be helpful to take the time to point out the potential dangers so that they gradually reach a point where they have enough knowledge to stay safe. This builds confidence and prepares them for solo adventures.

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Don’t let your own fears get in the way

Parents’ fears can get in the way of giving their children freedom. Worries about kidnapping and injury, and the fear of people thinking they’re bad caregivers can drive many parents to intervene before their child can engage in risk during play.

But statistics show that the likelihood of a child in Canada getting kidnapped is 1 in 14 million — similar odds to winning the lottery. And recent estimates show that children would need to spend about three hours per day playing, every day, for 10 years before they were likely to get an injury that needed treatment (and it would likely still be minor).

Brussoni and her team of researchers have developed an online tool called Outsideplay.ca, which informs parents on making informed choices regarding risky play for their children.

Practice the 17-second rule

Instead of telling your child not to climb so high or run so fast while observing them at play, take a moment — or, as Brussoni advises, 17 seconds. Step back, she says, and “see how your child is reacting to the situation so that you can actually get a better sense of what they’re capable of when you’re not getting in the way.”

Brussoni explains that this will provide them with “the opportunity to figure out for themselves what’s comfortable and what they can do,” while allowing them to develop those all-important risk-management skills.

Get out of the way

In The Power of Play, Brussoni states that the most important thing parents and guardians can do is get out of the way: provide children with an environment for play and then let them play.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that optimal risky play is unsupervised. For younger kids, it may simply be about facilitating and supporting children in how they want to play, rather than guiding it .

6 key factors to risky play:
  1. Play with heights, such as climbing trees or structures
  2. Play at high speeds, such as a fast game of tag or riding a bike really fast
  3. Play with tools, such as building a fort or whittling a stick
  4. Play near elements, such as playing near fire, water, a cliff or something that a child could fall into
  5. Play with a chance of getting lost, such as wandering the neighbourhood with friends unsupervised, or simply hiding in the bushes for younger kids.
  6. Rough-and-tumble play, such as play fighting ”
Provide time, freedom and space for good play

Brussoni emphasizes that parents need to carve out enough time to let children play, despite a high volume of homework and extracurriculars. Kids need to be afforded the freedom to play the way they want to, without being limited by the mindset of their guardians.

High-quality play also requires space — both physical and psychological. In terms of physical space, there needs to be enough of it, and it has to be of good quality (more on this later). Psychological space, Brussoni explains, “involves the feeling that somebody has their back” so that kids “feel like they have the latitude to try and try these experiments.”

Create a play space with loose parts and materials

Brussoni and her team are currently developing a playability index to find out what elements are necessary to create a high-quality outdoor play space in neighbourhoods.

In her interviews with hundreds of children, one factor stood out: the freedom to build on imagination. In the typical North American playground, equipment is fixed and the options for play are limited; there is only so much you can do with a slide, monkey bars or swings.

Instead, Brussoni’s team recommends removing all this structure, and instead providing loose materials such as logs, mud, tarps, crates, sticks, planks, ropes and even water to play with.

These elements can often be found in nature, vacant lots and even junkyards, but the most important element in any play space is, again, the psychological and physical space to take risks.

To learn more, watch The Power of Play on The Nature of Things.


Available on CBC Gem

The Power of Play

Nature of Things