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Engaging in risky play is a natural part of a child’s development. In addition to increasing physical activity and developing social skills, risky play is a way by which children learn to adapt to their environments and fears, and may moderate the potential of a future anxiety disorder.

Risky play is a form of play that is thrilling and involves an element of potential physical injury. It most often occurs outdoors, during free play, where children challenge themselves by overcoming fear and trying something new, or by tiptoeing the line between being in or out of control. Risky play is not being reckless or careless.

Types and Functions of Risky Play

Ellen Sandseter, a leader in the field of risky play research, categorizes risky play into six groups:

  • Great Heights: climbing, jumping down or hanging from a height
    • To explore the environment
    • Develops muscular strength and endurance
    • Develops perceptual competencies and spatial skills
    • Less likely to fear heights later in life
  • High Speed: biking or running at high and uncontrolled speed, swinging, sliding
    • To enhance depth, movement, size, and shape perception
    • Develops spatial-orientation abilities
    • Develops fitness and physical literacy
  • Rough and Tumble: play wrestling and fighting, chasing
    • Develops physical fitness and motor practice
    • Develops skills to regulate aggressive behaviour
    • Develops and practice social skills
    • Less likely to become aggressive and anxious
  • Disappear or Get Lost: exploring, playing alone in unfamiliar environments
    • To learn about the environment
    • Less likely to have separation anxiety
  • Dangerous Tools: whittling with knives, chopping wood
    • To learn the properties and functions of objects and tools
    • Learns how to manipulate objects in different ways, eg. throwing, hitting
  • Dangerous Elements: near fire, on cliffs, near deep water
    • To enhance familiarity with environmental constraints
    • May reduce the risk of phobias of, or the inability to cope near water, heights, fire
    • *Not all children perceive the potential hazard

The Emotion Regulation Theory of Play

Risky play has been observed in other animals, and the way it transcends time and culture suggests that despite the risk of injury, it is an evolutionarily essential part of maturation and development: the advantages must outweigh the risks.

For humans, and other mammals, play serves to teach us how to regulate our emotions, particularly fear and anger. Through risky play, children learn how to manage and overcome their fear. They expose themselves to an individual-appropriate level of fear and practice remaining reasonably calm while they choose the best way to tackle that fear. It is possible that if children do not have the opportunities to go through these natural processes of overcoming their fears, the fear can become a phobia later in life. In rough and tumble play, children gain social skills, and learn to regulate anger and aggression: for the fun and play to continue, they must overcome negative emotions that could lead to actions that would hurt or upset their playmate.

The Paradoxical Nature of Overprotection

Parents want the best for their children, and for some, that might include keeping them as safe as possible by minimizing risks. In some ways, this natural parental desire to protect their kids from harm has reduced valuable opportunities for children to develop their independence and creativity. Not only are children not satisfying their innate needs for discovery and risk-taking, these efforts are not necessarily keeping kids safer. In the US, the frequency of playground-related emergency room visits in 2012 was similar to the frequency in 1980, when children were afforded much more freedom and engaged more often in risky play. Attempts to protect children by restricting their freedom may actually be hurting them more:

  • Fear instilled by parents onto the child can be internalized by the child and expressed as anxiety
  • Children that do not engage in risky, emotion-inducing play lose the opportunity to teach themselves emotional resilience
  • Only 37% of children play outside every day
    • Kids are spending less time outside playing (engaging in physical activity) and more time inside on screens
  • Organized sport, as an alternative to free, unstructured play, may be less safe than child-directed play
    • Kids often know their own physical and emotional capabilities and avoid risks they are not ready to take
      • They may be pushed by adults or coaches into things they are not ready for
    • Children are more likely to get hurt in adult-directed sports than in free play
      • Free play, without adult pressure, is focused on fun, and children take care not to hurt their playmates
      • Overuse injuries in youth sports are increasing, but in free play, children stop or alter their play when something hurts
      • Adult encouragement and the competitiveness of sport make children take risks they may not normally choose to in free play, and they could hurt themselves and other children

Risky Play in Practice

One successful example of risky play is a playground in North Wales called The Land – there is even a documentary about it. It resembles an old junkyard and there, children are free to let their imaginations loose, creating fires, building with tools, and playing without inhibition.

The culture of The Land is on the extreme other end of the spectrum for many parents and caregivers. For those that recognize the importance of risky play for your children, OutsidePlay is an online tool to help you feel more comfortable in allowing them to spend more time playing outside. With benefits for health, self-esteem, risk management, and their ability to keep themselves safe, letting your child engage in risky play and allowing them more freedom is a powerful thing you can do for their current and future development and well-being.

Bonnay S. (March 2017). Is Your Risky Play Risky Enough? HiMama.
Challenging Play – Risky! (2012). Kidsafe NSW.
Gray P. (April 2014). Risky Play: Why Children Love It and Need It. Psychology Today.
Outsideplay. (2017).
Rosin H. (April 2014). The Overprotected Kid. The Atlantic.
Sandseter EBH, Kennair LEO. Children’s risky play from an evolutionary perspective: The anti-phobic effects of thrilling experiences. Evolutionary Psychology. 2011; 9(2): 257-284.
Why Letting Your Kids Play Alone Outside Is Good For Them. (June 2017). The Social.

About the Author: Lily is a fourth-year student in the kinesiology program at Western University, currently interning with SIRC. With a background in synchronized swimming, she continues to be actively involved in sport as a coach and varsity athlete.

The information presented in SIRC blogs and SIRCuit articles is accurate and reliable as of the date of publication. Developments that occur after the date of publication may impact the current accuracy of the information presented in a previously published blog or article.