If you have a child that is of walking age, you're probably familiar with this scenario: You are on the playground with your toddler, and she decides that going down the slide is now too mundane and decides to climb UP the slide.
In your head, you know that the unspoken rule of playgrounds is to only go down the slide, but no one else is around. Plus you are secretly proud of your child for the persistence it takes to go up the slide.
What to do? Encourage persistence and thinking outside the box or stick with the "rules" of play etiquette?
While this is a simple scenario, the larger issue at work here is actually quite telling—should we, as parents, encourage play that might be considered "risky" or do we stick to the norms of our "safe" society?
In media commentary right now there does seem to be a clear divide between the free-range parents who allow their children to go to the park alone or ride the subway unattended and the helicopter parents who hover over every action, independent step or playground fall. In reality, however, there is always a happy medium between these two extremes.
One tool we have on our side in this debate is research. With the help of research, we can help understand the difference between unsafe play activities, and those that may seem risky but might actually offer some real benefits. Researchers are beginning to look at the outcomes for kids who engage in more "risky" play, and the results might surprise you.
It's worth noting that in these studies risky play was defined as activities like playing at heights, rough-and-tumble play, and play in risk-supportive environments (e.g., adventure playground).
The developmental benefits of risky play
1. Builds confidence
Imagine how your toddler feels when she actually does make it UP the slide by herself. Most likely she beams with pride. This is the type of confidence researchers say that risky play helps build. It's a confidence built by persistence, but also by an unspoken understanding that you trust her to handle herself in a new arena.
This is a contrast to more typical ways of playing in which the parent is monitoring every action for fear of risk. Scholars point out that this sends a message to the child that maybe they cannot trust their own feelings or judgment about what feels unsafe.
2. Encourages more active play
This was one of the clearest aspects of the research findings. Kids who engage in risky play tend to be more active in their play. Some of this has to do with the fact that these kids are typically allowed more independent mobility than other kids. These are the kids who are allowed to walk alone to a friend's house or play at a neighborhood park alone.
Additionally, the studies showed that kids tend to be more active when playing at adventure playgrounds that involve "risky" elements such as old tires, recycled pieces, etc. compared to playing at traditional playgrounds with play structures.
This is not meant to imply that you should allow your 2-year-old to play at a junkyard with a pile of tools, but it does show that kids really want a challenge. We have all seen middle schoolers climbing on TOP of a playhouse or fence line at a playground. This research has us consider that maybe they are just looking for a more challenging physical outlet.
Kids feel empowered when they are given a little freedom to test their physical limits. It turns out, this physical challenge also probably makes them healthier too by encouraging activity.
3. Establishes internal limits
It's counterintuitive, but risky play actually makes kids safer in the long-term. By experimenting with tolerable risk, kids get a better sense of their internal and physical limits. Climbing to the top of a playscape might frighten some 2-year-olds, but for others it's exhilarating and confidence-building. Each child has to figure out these limits for themselves (at age-appropriate levels of course).
Research studies that followed over 25,000 kids found that there was no link between risky play (i.e., playing at higher heights) and increased risk of injury. The frequency of bone fractures was unrelated to the height of playground equipment.
Some researchers have even argued that by denying kids opportunities to deal with tolerable risk, they are denied the chance to face a fear and overcome it. Without this exposure, some kids may internalize fear more which can lead to anxiety disorders.
4. Promotes social skills
It might seem odd that risky play can improve social skills, but there seems to be a link, at least with certain types of play. Rough-and-tumble play is correlated with better social competence, especially among boys. Furthermore, it was not linked to higher levels of aggression.
You can imagine why this is the case: Generally speaking, rough-and-tumble play is the norm among boys (gender stereotypes notwithstanding), so this activity is linked to social skills because it is one of the primary ways boys play and interact in social settings.
In other words, it seems that this rough-and-tumble play helps kids learn about social boundaries, reading emotions, and regulating their own emotions, especially anger. Although it just seems like fun play to us, kids are subtly learning about social negotiation and how to determine when the play has gone too far.
5. Encourages creativity
Risky play can foster new ways of thinking and creativity as kids are put into situations that are outside the norm of their usual environments. On an ordinary playground, kids have few problems to solve or new situations to manage—most kids have experienced slides, swings and play structures before.
However, in a more "risky" setting such as an adventure playground or lake setting, the inherent dilemmas of nature are present. Kids must use creative thinking and problem solving to determine how many kids can stand on a fallen tree before it gives way. Kids learn through trial-and-error how close they can get to the edge of the lake before they bog down in mud. These seem like simple activities but for young children, they are brain-building.
One study found that kids were more creative in their thinking when playing on playgrounds that included "loose parts" (e.g., old tires, boxes, etc.). Although these items had no obvious play value, kids included them in all types of creative ways in their play narratives.
We all want to keep our kids safe, but as in all things parenting, balance is key. By balancing safety and exploration, our kids can benefit from learning how to manage a bit of risk and build skills that will aid them for the years ahead.