Parenting is a risky business—being in charge of another little human is no joke.
Finding ways to allow your kids to take a few risks, however, is an infinitely more daunting challenge. And yet, it might just be one of the best ways to spark your child’s development.
Last winter, we took our boys sledding in a nearby national park. The setting was lovely and there was an area specially designed for sledding. However, it is still a national park so there were a few trees nearby (mostly off to the side of the sledding area).
My 4-year-old son is at the age where he wants to do everything himself, especially any activities his 8-year-old brother does. He’s pretty coordinated so after he begged and demanded we decided to let him try sledding by himself on the sled that has handles for steering and slowing down.
We explained how the handles worked and he was excited to try this new, exciting endeavor on his own. We, of course, explained to steer away from the trees.
His first time out, he slid off the course slightly and between two trees (a gap of only about 3 feet!) and landed in a ditch. Not bad, but it made my heart race a bit. We reiterated our instructions about steering away from the trees and let him try one more time.
This time, he ran right into a tree! Luckily, he was not injured but the sled was cracked. I, on the other hand, had a series of small heart-attacks as I watched this unfold.
We rushed over to make sure our son was not hurt and the first thing he said was, “I want to do it again!”
The Role of Risky Play in Child Development
Some of you reading this may consider my husband and I to be horrible parents for allowing our 4-year-old to try what some would consider a dangerous activity. I understand that.
However, the other part of me knows that some amount of “risky” play is necessary for kids’ development.
One of the most comprehensive reports on this subject pooled data from 21 high-quality studies of risky play among kids. These studies looked at play that involved things like tall heights, use of potentially dangerous tools, high-speed, play with dangerous substances like fire or water, activities that involved the possibility of getting lost, and rough-and-tumble play such as wrestling or play-fighting.
Now for some parents this list sounds like something out of a nightmare, but what researchers found may shock you.
None of the studies showed that this type of play was associated with negative effects (including injury). Instead, the studies indicated that kids who participate in these types of play are better off both psychologically and physically. They tended to be more active, physically fit and psychologically resilient.
The Counter-Intuitive Nature of Risky Play
As parents, our instinctive nature is to protect our kids. This is normal.
However, what this research tells us is that letting go a bit actually helps our kids gain confidence in their own abilities and an understanding of their physical limitations.
Although researchers are still trying to understand how the benefits of risky play actually work, they believe that it has to do with kids’ hands-on exploring, rather than being told by adults what the limitations should be.
In other words, when kids explore and play with their own bodies, they are more likely to feel and determine their own limits. This risky play, therefore, is their way of figuring out how to set their own limits.
In contrast, kids whose play is micromanaged and who are kept within the boundaries of what their parents consider as “safe” come to believe that they cannot trust their own feelings about their bodies and limits.
Psychologically, there is a lot of difference between kids who learn how to set their own limits and those who do not. Kids who are allowed forms of risky play are more confident and outgoing, while kids who are not are more timid and less self-assured of their own capabilities.
Of course, as with any developmental task, it takes time for kids to learn their bodies and their limits. Parents still need to provide guidance and restrictions for very young children and protect them from dangerous situations.
However, as kids mature, parents might start to establish guidelines in regards to tolerable risk, so that kids come to understand that the parents trust the child’s ability to keep themselves safe (at least to a point).
Getting Past Judgment—The Case for Going Up the Slide
Many of you have probably experienced something like this on the playground: your child is 3-4 years old and they have long-mastered going down the slide. One day, your child attempts to climb up the slide. As a parent, you are faced with a choice—allow your child to go up the slide or enforce the rule of “slides are only for going down.”
The slide issue relates directly to the idea of risky play. For young kids, going up the slide is, to their mind, risky play. They are doing something that, at least on the face of it, a slide is not meant to do.
As a parent, you know that the slide is designed for going down. However, you may also realize that the reason your child is going up the slide is probably because she has mastered going down the slide and now finds it boring. She needs a challenge!
Although this issue seems minor it is at the heart of the risky play research. Kids inherently want and need challenges; both physical and mental. And these kinds of challenges are necessary to build grit! We should honor, respect, and support this awesome feature in kids’ personalities.
If you look around any playground today, you will inevitably see burgeoning preschoolers trying to go up slides, older elementary kids climbing on top of the money bars or even middle schoolers climbing to the roof of play structures. I have seen all these incidents in my neighborhood park alone.
The fact that this is so common (almost universal) should tell us something—kids are craving some experience or challenge they are not getting from the “normal” use of the playground. They inherently need more risk.
One of the main issues in accommodating this need, however, centers on the judgment of other parents. If you choose to allow your child to go up the slide, go fast on the sledding hill, or any other “risky” challenges, you put yourself in line to face judgment from other parents.
You probably all know this experience—the glares or comments from other parents that tell you that they do not agree with your parenting choices. At the core, this is why many parents eschew risky play among their children. They fear the reproach of nearby parents thinking that they are “bad parents” or their kids are “dangerous.”
I have encountered this several times over the years since I have two boys who are not risk-averse at all. Pushing me out of my non-confrontational comfort zone is their main goal it seems, so I have had to come up with a few tips that help me cope with the judgment of other parents:
1. Consider the skill of your child.
Not every 2-year-old is the same or has the same skills. Just because your neighbor won’t allow her 2-year-old to climb to the top of the playscape, doesn’t mean you have to follow suit. You, better than anyone else, know your child’s physical skills and what you think they can manage in terms of risk. Even if you face a few glares from other parents, trust your best judgment when it comes to what you allow your child to do.
2. Consider your child’s personality.
This goes right along with #1. If your child is very risk-tolerant and craves the adrenaline of “risky” play, then you will be hard-pressed to deter him from it. It is part of their nature. Although I want to keep my child safe, I really don’t want to crush his spirit or try to dampen his inherent temperament.
Understanding your child’s temperament can also come in handy to explain to those judging parents why you allow your child to do “risky” activities. If they understand your choice comes from a place of understanding, not neglect, they might soften their attitude a bit.
3. Still consider other’s feelings.
By considering your child’s skill and personality I’m not saying you should completely ignore other parents’ feelings about risky play. The key is balance.
If your child is attempting to go up the slide while other kids are trying to go down it, it is common courtesy to allow the others to go first. The main goal for me is to teach my children that tolerable risk is okay as long as it doesn’t endanger themselves or other people.
For me, the issue of risky play is all about trusting your child (little bits at a time). In small steps, you learn to trust your child’s instincts about what they feel they can handle and what they cannot.
Another focus is that of making rules meaningful, not arbitrary. It’s meaningful to have a rule of “no going up the slide” when other kids are trying to go down at the same time. However, if you are the only people on the playground, the same rule doesn’t make sense. Over time, kids learn the difference between rules that protect everyone and rules that are arbitrary.
2-Minute Action Plan for Fine Parents
- How do you feel about risky play? Does knowing the research showing benefits change your feelings?
- In your parenting, do you find it difficult to allow tolerable risk in your child’s play?
- How can you see the idea of “tolerable risk” changing as your children grow and mature?
Ongoing Action Plan for Fine Parents
- Talk to older kids about tolerable risk—help them understand the difference between risks that are fun and those than could endanger others.
- Think about your children’s personalities and how they approach risky play. Are they risk-tolerant or risk-averse? How does this affect their approach to new activities?
- Consider if there are rules that could be changed in light of the research on risky play? Are there any activities that you might allow your child to do now that you see the benefits of tolerable risk?