Why Risky Play is Good for Kids

One of the best ways for children to learn is through play. Playing helps young kids understand how things work, how to manage emotions, and how to navigate social interactions.

What is Risky Play?

There’s a specific type of playing that is important for kids, which often takes place outdoors or in nature. Risky play is play that is exciting, allows children to test limits and find out what happens. There’s an element of uncertainty and a chance of something going wrong. In order for children to function in the real world as adults, they need to develop skills and maturity that come from making mistakes.

OutsidePlay.ca lists six different types of risky play:

  1. Play with great heights - such as climbing a tree or monkey bars.

  2. Play at high speed - such as biking down a hill or swinging really fast.

  3. Play with tools - such as a hammer.

  4. Play near elements - such as a campfire or near water.

  5. Play with a chance of getting lost - such as playing hide and seek or exploring the neighbourhood.

  6. Rough-and-tumble play - such as wrestling or play-fighting.

What Risky Play Is Not

Risky play doesn’t mean leaving kids completely unsupervised, or not removing clear dangers that they may not have the maturity to understand. Teaching kids about risks and guiding them in their decisions is important, but doing so in a way that gives children the time and space to make mistakes and learn from them, to let them fall so they know how to get back up.

Benefits of Risky Play

Engaging in risky play helps children develop skills, including:

  • Risk-management - the process of recognizing and evaluating a risk, and acting in a way to reduce the consequences. For example, a kid may run so fast that they lose their balance and fall down. They learn for next time that the consequence of running too fast is falling down, so they decide to slow down their running so they don’t get hurt again.

  • Decision making - weighing all the benefits and consequences before making a decision and being confident in the decision you made. For example, if a child climbs a tree and tires out, they are stuck in the tree until they have the energy to get down. Next time they might decide not to climb quite as high, so they have the energy to get back down again. Risky play teaches children to consider all the positives and negatives of an action before making a decision.

  • Emotion management - keeping your emotions in check and keeping them from over-influencing your actions. For example, a child who participates in rough-and-tumble play with another child may feel anger if they are hurt. To continue to play, the child must overcome and control the anger.

Over time, risky play teaches children about themselves, their skills and how the real world works.

Play in Nature

Not only do children benefit from risky play, children also benefit from being outside and playing in nature - where a lot of risky play takes place.

There are many benefits to playing in nature, especially for kids.

  • Physical health benefits of playing outdoors include stress relief, improvements in immune systems, less allergies and exercise to keep the body healthy.

  • Mental health benefits include improving ADHD symptoms, improving self-esteem, relieving stress and reducing negative feelings.

Caring for Nature

Playing outdoors, in nature, and engaging in risky play have many benefits for children and their development. But there’s one other very important benefit too, that extends beyond that individual’s well being.

A child who is connected with nature at a young age is more likely to stay connected to nature as an adult. And individuals who are connected to and understand nature are also more likely to be concerned with environmental issues, and are more likely to take steps to conserve and protect nature and wildlife, and take steps to act on environmental issues.

More about Risky Play

Check out the links below you’re a parent or caregiver and would like to learn more about incorporating risky play.

  • OutsidePlay.ca - resources from BC to help parents understand and implement risky play

  • GetOutsideandPlay.ca - a program from the Alberta Council for Environmental Education