Risky behavior may have a negative connotation when talking about teenagers or adults, but when talking about children, it often refers to the concept of risky play. Modern parents of all ethnicities in the United States are generally more careful about what they let their children do and where they let them play than in decades past.
For us parents of Asian descent, letting kids play in “risky” situations can be difficult, especially if we ourselves grew up with overprotective parents who tried to steer us in safe directions. They may have had our best interests in mind, but it’s just fun to be a kid!
Where playgrounds used to be full of structures made with splintery wood, hard metal and tires, now you will find structures outfitted with fiberglass and foam. But, some parents won’t even let their kids play on these structures, preferring to keep them away from everything that could possibly hurt them. (How boring!)
Back in the 1970s and ‘80s, kids used to wander off on their own, climb trees and do all kinds of things that would make today’s parents gasp and cringe. Often, parents won’t even let their children walk to school by themselves nowadays. Does the thought of letting your child out of your sight for even a second make you hyperventilate?
Then read on for why you should relax and let them play, get (slightly) hurt and fail at things like kids are supposed to. You see, it turns out all this overprotection can actually harm children.
Kids are very nervous today—they have a lot of anxiety
New York child development specialist and education consultant Rebecca Weingarten told Today’s Parent.
We need to promote constructive failure. Kids can’t be afraid to face the normal repercussions associated with taking risks.
In fact, research has shown there is significant benefit to letting children engage in so-called “risky play,” which is defined as playing in unstructured environments where there are perceived elements of danger. (Yes, danger is a scary word when it comes to kids. Take a deep breath.)
- Rough and tumble play, like play fighting or rolling down hills;
- Playing at heights or at great speeds like climbing trees and tobogganing;
- Playing with potentially harmful tools, like hammers and nails;
- Playing near potentially harmful elements, like fire, or
- Playing where children have the chance to get
lost, like in the forest.
Obviously, no parent wants their child to get hurt or lost, but there are some benefits in letting kids play in unstructured environments where there are perceived risks. And — here is the really good news — risky play is actually not as risky as parents may perceive it to be. Over the course of the aforementioned research, which looked at 21 individual studies on risky play, no serious head or spine injuries were recorded.
In fact, the research found that incidences of injuries were lower for unstructured risky play than they were for sports and active transportation like cycling, running or skateboarding. That means kids are more likely to be injured playing structured sports than they are engaging in unstructured risky play.
Published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, the research paper “What is the Relationship between Risky Outdoor Play and Health in Children? A Systematic Review” looked at 21 studies of risky play and correlated the findings of those studies. The review study’s authors found that risky play has many benefits to kids and your child can benefit from it, too!
1. Developing social skills, creativity and resilience
Kids aren’t born knowing what will hurt them. They have to develop risk assessment skills and risky play helps them do that by allowing them to learn what’s safe and what’s not. It helps them make quicker judgement calls on situations and band together with others to solve problems creatively.
- Recommended risky play: Take your kids out into the woods (in a safe
area), like a state park and let them explore.
- Let them climb a tree or climb freely on playground equipment.
2. Building self-esteem
Kids who are told they cannot do an activity because it is too risky may learn to doubt their own abilities as they grow up.
On the other hand, if they are encouraged to engage in risky play, they are more likely to experience positive emotions like joy, excitement, self-confidence and pride. That is because when parents let kids engage in risky play, they are showing kids that they trust them to assess risks, keep themselves safe and problem solve. This can increase a child’s self-esteem exponentially.
Recommended risky play+
- Supervised swimming (but let them try swimming by themselves)
- Let them try to build something with actual tools and building materials (within reason)
- Let them help out with things like building and starting a campfire
3. Preventing negative behaviors
If children are not exposed to risky play, it may cause them to feel less self-confident and more vulnerable, which could increase things like sedentary behavior and anxiety and lead to the development of phobias.
Another study, published in the Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology, looked at 313 families from Australia and the Netherlands and found that in both cultures, children of parents who encouraged them to push themselves were significantly less likely to develop anxiety disorders. Less anxiety is always a good thing!
This held true for when parents pushed their children to engage in intimidating physical challenges and also when they pushed their kids to try unfamiliar social situations. When parents showed confidence in their children, those children felt more confident in their own abilities. “While this isn’t a cure for anxiety, and we cannot at this stage determine causality, the results are promising in terms of parent education,” said co-author of the study Professor Jennie Hudson, Director of Centre for Emotional Health at Macquarie University.
By gently encouraging their kids in a reasonable way to push their limits, parents could be helping to reduce their child’s risk of developing an anxiety disorder, which is a great insight.
Recommended risky play+
- Take them on a challenging hike or bike ride (within their capabilities)
- Encourage them to take leadership roles
- Encourage them to try a sport they’re interested in
- Encourage them to try out for a public speaking
While research into risky play has found a lot of positives for physical play, one of the negative aspects is that girls are often not privy to the benefits of it because parents feel like they have to protect girls more than boys. Parents generally give boys more chances to explore and restrict their behaviors less than girls. Girls are also generally taught that they are more vulnerable than boys, which can sometimes rob them of the benefits of risky play.
So, if you are the parent of a girl, you may have to force yourself to let go even more.
The science is clear in stating that parents should let children take some risks for the good of their development and self-esteem. As long as it is within reason, parents should not only let their kids take risks while playing and doing everyday activities, but they should actually encourage it. So, go buy a power saw and some lumber and give it to your kids and watch them blossom! (Don’t actually do that. Maybe try letting them walk the last couple of blocks to school on their own and climb a tree first.)