Family Health

Why Risky Play is Good for Your Kids

Mar 19, 2015

A school principal once told a friend of mine that her take on safety in the schoolyard is that you don’t want kids to break an arm, but you do want them to scrape a knee. For parents, even that line can seem iffy. I mean, who wants their kid to scrape a knee?

I do.

Because I work at ParticipACTION and have exposure to the latest and greatest physical activity research on a regular basis, I might be more accepting of the value in what the experts call “risky play.”  But, because the arguments for risky play are so compelling, I want all parents to know what I know. So, I’m going to try to share the concept in a nutshell.

Letting your kids engage in risk is not about being daring or dangerous at all—it’s about letting your kids test their own limits in reasonable ways.

The basic concept is that the dangerous perception of outdoor play is largely unsubstantiated—in fact, playing outside and learning to take risks is actually good for your kids. According to Psychology Today, “…fear, you would think, is a negative experience, to be avoided whenever possible. Yet, as everyone who has a child or once was one knows, children love to play in risky ways—ways that combine the joy of freedom with just the right measure of fear to produce the exhilarating blend known as thrill.”

There are a whole bunch of scientific theories about why risk is essential—it played an evolutionary role in teaching kids how to regulate emotions like fear and anger, for instance—but I like to think in simpler terms. When it comes to my own kids, risk = reward. Letting your kids engage in risk is not about being daring or dangerous at all—it’s about letting your kids test their own limits in reasonable ways. Facing risk is part of life, so here are some ways to be smart about it:

Step Back My kids are young, so I take this quite literally. When I’m at the playground, rather than standing behind my 19-month-old as he climbs the short stairs to the slide, I stand nearby. He can see me, but I think it’s important that he knows I trust him, and am giving him the space to navigate the steps alone.
Bite Your Tongue I hear it ALL the time: “Be careful!” When they take off down the sidewalk, running, I can almost feel the scraped knee coming when it slips out of my own mouth. I think offering this caution actually makes ME feel better, but probably does no more for them than break their concentration. If I let them run, they will learn to be careful on their own.
Put Down the Whistle Especially when other parents’ kids are involved, it’s so tempting to intervene when your kid is playing tug-of-war with a park toy. But, if your child always looks to you as referee, he or she will never learn to hold her own. If you want to teach them how to assert themselves, or play fair, have these conversations, but not when they’re in the middle of a battle. Step in if someone’s about to get hurt, but let feelings be bruised and words exchanged. They’re a part of life.
See Them Smile Nothing compares to the sense of accomplishment smeared across a child’s face when he takes a calculated risk, feels the thrill of overcoming a challenge and does something new on his own.

Giving your kids the space and freedom to take risks—and yes, maybe even hurt themselves a little—is nowhere near easy to do, but it’s worth it. You don’t have to throw caution to the wind, but you can let out the sails a little. If you can take that leap and be OK with a little risky play, the reward will be even bigger leaps in your kids’ confidence, competence and joy.

Article Author Moblees and ParticipACTION
Moblees and ParticipACTION

The Moblees is a multi-platform "Movement Movement" designed to promote healthy active living among Canadian children. Along with partner organization ParticipACTION, The Moblees aims to provide early intervention strategies to reduce childhood obesity and to inspire a foundational change in the way children and their families move through their daily lives.

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