The Importance of Risky Play for Children


In 2023, Ellen Sandseter, PhD and her team of Norwegian researchers determined the importance of “high risk” play. They found that children across the globe engage in six types of risky play. The first is climbing (trees, furniture, and walls). The second is chasing speed (swings, fast slides, and soaring downhill on bicycles). The third is engaging with dangerous tools. These tools fluctuate by culture, but children across the world play with items that are potentially dangerous. The fourth is hazardous elements. If you are a parent, you know how challenging it is to keep your children away from fire and water. The fifth form of risky play is rough and tumble. This category includes chase, wrestling, and tickle fights. The final type of risky play is getting lost. Young children love to play hide and seek while older children enjoy escaping the watchful eyes of adults. As a parent, it is important to allow your children to engage in risky play for a variety of reasons.

Risky play increases resilience by exposing children to scary situations. Risky play allows children to experience things that scare them in a gradual and fun manner. Children who overcome fears encountered in play develop a resilience that allows them to successfully handle fear in real life situations.

Risky play helps children develop flexibility. When children engage in risky play, they are willingly placing themselves in situations they can not control. Risky play allows children to adapt to unpredictable scenarios and become comfortable with being uncomfortable.

Risky play helps children remain calm during physiological arousal. Our bodies experience the same physiological reactions to excitement and fear. In the face of both emotions, our hearts race, our palms sweat, and our breathing becomes shallow. Children who experience these symptoms through play can normalize the ebb and flow of physiological arousal. Children exposed to risky play know that a rapid heartbeat does not always suggest something to fear.

Risky play develops executive functioning skills. If you stand back and watch children engage in risky play, you will notice their innate ability to assess danger. Observational studies have repeatedly shown that children naturally evaluate situations and progressively transition from lower risks to greater risks. While doing this, children are learning to plan, gaining experience, and completing challenging tasks.

Risky play builds emotional and physical strength. Risky play challenges both the mind and body. When you allow children to push themselves in play, they feel pride in facing what is difficult. Even if they only reach the lowest limb, point out how proud you are that they overcame their fear and started climbing.

Rates of anxiety in children and adults are skyrocketing. Anxiety is contagious, but calm is also contagious. Despite your own fears, the best thing you can for your child’s anxiety is allow them to gradually engage in risky play. Follow your children’s lead and encourage every attempt they make to face what challenges them.


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