Why Children Need to Take Risks in Play

Are you the laid-back parent at the park that watches your child from afar, or are you the parent that hovers close-by to make sure your child doesn’t take a spill off the play structure?

I’ll admit, I’m the latter.

When it comes to giving my child opportunities to take risks and seek adventure, I err on the side of caution. It takes a major effort for me to stand back and let my son push the boundary on his physical limits.

But early childhood research suggests that taking and managing these risks in play is an incredibly important part of a child’s development, so I’m working on keeping my anxiety in check and letting my son discover his strengths and abilities. 

Young children need novelty, space for exploration, and physical challenges. Now more than ever, well-intentioned parents are discouraging their kids from taking risks in play.

It’s scary for parents to see their kids climbing way up high in an oak tree, swinging upside down on the monkey bars, or rolling down a huge hill. We worry so much about our kids getting hurt that we try to deter (or even forbid) our kids from playing from heights, engaging in rough and tumble play, hiding or being alone, or playing with high speed.

Although nerve-wracking, research shows that “risky play” has a multitude of benefits when done in safe environments. Here are 4 research-backed benefits of letting your child take some risks in play:

1. Enriched cognitive understanding of the environment

From babyhood, young children are learning about the cause and effect nature of the world around them. If I do something, something happens as a result.

Bumps, bruises, and otherwise common childhood injuries are ways in which children learn about their physical limitations and what they can do safely without getting hurt. Every time that a child climbs a tree, they assess the danger and weigh the benefits of jumping down based on prior experiences they have had from being at a similar heights.

If a child has never experienced being up high, or taking physical risks, they are more likely to hurt themselves when placed in that situation.

“You can raise your kids to be competent and courageous, or you can make them safe. Except life isn’t safe, so you can’t make them safe. If you sacrifice their courage and competence on the altar of safety, then you disarm them completely. Then all they can do is pray to always be protected.” – Professor and Clinical Psychologist, Jordan Peterson

2. Improved motor and sensory processing skills

Risky play is active in nature, and fulfills a variety of children’s sensory needs. Jumping, climbing, swinging, sliding and hanging are essential in the development of children’s overall motor skills.

Body awareness and coordination develops over time as a result of big motor movements such as jumping, climbing, swinging and sliding.

Children who do not have these opportunities are more likely to be clumsy or have a fear of active movement.

Proprioception is the understanding of where your body is in space, and this awareness is developed when your muscles stretch and contract through jumping and climbing. These motor actions send messages to our brain and teach us how to move our bodies in a way that makes running and playing effortless.

Swinging and hanging upside down stimulates the inner ear, which is very important in developing coordination. These movements teach your sensory system that your body is able to adapt and regain balance in order to avoid injury.

There is a reason why children seek out active and risky-play: it benefits their entire body!

3. Working Through Real-Life Phobias and Anxiety

The most common fears and phobias in children are the fear of heights, wild animals, water, the dark, and being alone.

Isn’t it interesting that these common phobias are also the most common themes for children’s play? Climbing high, pretending to be animals, hide and seek… these are the activities that we see children engage in generation after generation.

Kids are seeking opportunities to act out scenarios that give them a feeling of anxiety, and over time this gives them a sense of mastery over these fears and phobias. Play also provides children an opportunity to “work through” real life scenarios that may have caused them fear in the past.

This is why you may see your child returning to the same fear-inducing activity day after day!

4. Building Self-Esteem and Confidence

When we allow our children to manage the risks of their play, we find that they are actually more capable than we think. Risky play places children in situations in which they need to make important decisions, and this builds their self-esteem and confidence.

Think about the last time your child has gotten themselves into a risky situation that caused them fear. Let’s say that they climbed up on top of the monkey bars and couldn’t figure out how to get themselves down.  If you can find a way to talk your child through it so that they can get down on their own, they feel a huge sense of pride and accomplishment. Your child stores this memory away as a “success” and will feel more confident next time.

On the other hand, if we “rescue” our child every time they get scared, they learn not to trust themselves.

The bottom line is… if your child is always expecting you to weigh the cost/risk benefit of their every move, they aren’t learning how to be independent or problem solve on their own.

While it can be stressful to see your child taking in risky play, the benefits far exceed the actual danger. So the next time your child says, “Look mom!” from the top of a climbing structure, take a deep breath and remember that they are learning.

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13 thoughts on “Why Children Need to Take Risks in Play

  1. This is so true. Excellent article. I know many parents have a hard time stepping back. Children need to learn for themselves what they can do and what they can’t. It works better when they do then parents telling them. By being able to explore will build their confidence and independence. Rachel Explore Kid Talk

    1. It can be so hard to step back! We don’t want our children to get hurt but you are so right – they learn better when they learn for themselves. Thank you for stopping by!

  2. Great read! I used to be the hovering-the-one-who-always-freaks-out parent but since my kids started Montessori I am now a more of a laid-back kinda parent. At times my heart stops when I see they are about to do something stupid but I still try to let them…

    1. You and me, both! Montessori is so great for letting children learn and explore their limits and boundaries. Thanks for sharing!!

  3. I’ll admit I was more protective with my first born than I am with my second. I did discover though at a young age with my oldest that taking risks is just part of growing up. This was so well written thank you for sharing

    1. I am due with my second baby this August and I always wonder if I’ll feel more calm with the next one since I have the experience from the first. I sure hope so! Thank you so much for stopping by and sharing your experience 🙂

  4. This is so well researched. Thank you for taking the time to explain it. I am also a hovering parent but I try hard to regulate myself. It’s challenging for me to define the line between giving independence and reckless parenting, especially on the playground. I’m learning with experience, though.

  5. Great article — I enjoyed reading it! I could not agree more, and feel like the current state of society is so detrimental to our children. I hate that parents are penalized for allowing their children to walk to the park alone! Our children are the ones who suffer most.

  6. So true and something I already struggle with. My 7 month old has a prosthetic eye so we take precautions to protect her non-magic eye. However, I want her to learn her boundaries and explore. Such a great read and I’m pinning so I can come back for reminders!

    1. It’s such a balance to keep them safe while letting them explore. Just being aware is the first step! Thank you so much for sharing your experience, I love reading about your daughter’s story!

  7. I completely agree with this. It is really hard as parents (especially moms) to watch our kids do things that might result in injury because we don’t want our babies getting hurt. But how can they learn if they can’t practice?

    Very interesting to read about all the ways risky play effects children’s development as well. It’s important to let nature take it’s course with children, because there are often reasons for the things they do that we may not yet realize or understand.

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