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Kids Need Risky Play, but Just how Risky?

29 July 2019

As a parent, I often reflect back on my childhood with fond memories. Climbing trees, racing my bike down the hill on my road at top speeds, precariously crossing a creek heel-to-toe on a wobbly branch, and rolling down a bumpy, burr-covered hill that looked like a mountain to my child size.

Ah, the good old days! The only sad part of those memories was when the sun would set and it was time to go home.

Did I survive unscathed? For the most part, I did. Although there were a few bumps, bruises, and scraped knees. I remember one time I was perched on the edge of the bathtub with fat tears rolling down my cheeks. My dad was gently putting a large band-aid on my freshly skinned knee as he sternly asked me, “So what did you learn from this?” I learned that attempting to ride my bike down the hill while yelling, “Look, mom! No hands!” was a bad idea.

There is a question that nags at me and perplexes me. What happened between then and now? How did we go from an era of unstructured and, at times, risky play to a time when parents might very well get a phone call from other concerned parents if their child was ‘busted’ doing such activities?

How very odd that the generation that grew up with these wonderful childhood freedoms should grow up to raise their children in a completely different direction. As a mother from that generation, I can attest to this myself with my own children. I cannot count how many times I’d catch sight of my oldest son racing his bike down the driveway with both hands up in the air and feel the pit of my stomach lurch into my throat.

With the new generation of parenting came a variety of self-help books, parenting books, and a whole range of advice from experts. This new age of safety and protection brought an influx of studies, statistics, and facts on all of the terrible things that could happen to our children if they were not properly supervised and guided. Perhaps we have been unintentionally misguided. In our sincere attempts to do the very best with our children, we may have stepped away from one of the very things that they need as part of their development.

With that being said, is there a way for our children to experience risky play without risk of serious injury or turning all of the hair on our heads gray? The answer is yes. It may take a little readjustment to the way us moms think and react but it can be done. The goal is to keep our children safe while also giving them the independence that they need to develop and flourish into their future selves.

Science Backs up Need for Risky Play

It’s now known that children actually learn through play. Risky play offers children an opportunity to learn things that they will unlikely learn in any other situation. Barry A. Garst, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Youth Development Leadership at Clemson College of Behavioral, Social and Health Sciences stresses the importance of risky play. Children are able to test and affirm their abilities through trial and error. It is also important that children learn to cope with failure. This is a part of life, and children that were not allowed to experience this first hand will have greater difficulty as they grow into adulthood.

Risky play is going to be more difficult to handle for the mom than the child. Believe me, I can testify to this! There are many ways that you can provide your child with safe risky play. If this concept is completely foreign to you, you may want to start with some simple, unstructured playtime. This will allow your child a sense of freedom to express themselves while you get used to the idea of risky play.

Ways to Introduce Risky Play

There are many ways that you can help set the stage for your child’s risky play. To be honest, it’s more a paradigm shift for parents than a set of rules.

To get started, why not set up some climbing toys in the back yard and let them have at it. A little height, but not too much, introduces a level of healthy risk.

Then, give them some plans for a birdhouse, some wood, nails, and a small, lightweight hammer (yes, a hammer). What’s the worst that can happen? They hammer their thumb. Painful? Yes. Life-threatening? No. The objective is to allow your child to play with some risk involved while making sure there is no risk of serious injury. The key is balance.

About the Author

Arthur is a child play theorist, educator, and father. He is also the chief editor at Muddy Smiles where he advocates passionately for more playtime both in schools and at home.

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