Why Kids Need to Take Risks

Banning risky behavior doesn't do kids any favors

Climbing high means risk taking
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When you stop your kids from risk-taking, you are taking a risk of your own—with your child's health. Kids really grow and learn when they have the permission and opportunities they need to take risks: To climb high, to wander independently, to use grown-up tools, to bike down a hill as fast as they can.

While it's natural to want to keep your child safe from harm, the chance of injuries may actually be worth it, in exchange for emotional and physical confidence.

Research shows that the great majority of injuries kids sustain during risky outdoor play are minor and require little or no medical treatment.

Risk-Taking Promotes Physical Health

Most risky play and behavior involves at least some physical activity, whether it is walking to school or the park alone, climbing a tree, or trying new skateboard tricks. Disallowing or discouraging risks can reduce the amount of physical activity your child is getting. And the great majority of kids aren't getting the 60 minutes of daily active play (minimum!) that they need. One study found that when parents restricted their kids' independent, outdoor play, those kids got about half the amount of physical activity as their peers whose play wasn't restricted.

Take a look at the types of risky behavior identified by one child development researcher (who observed kids at playgrounds in three different countries to make this list):

  1. Play at heights
  2. Play at high speeds
  3. Play with dangerous tools
  4. Play near dangerous elements (like water or fire)
  5. Rough-and-tumble play (like wrestling)
  6. Wandering alone away from adult supervision

Yep, most of those are going to challenge and strengthen kids' muscles, bones, hearts, and lungs, and that's a good thing.

Does the thrill of height or speed is what it takes to get your child moving (and moving for longer periods of time)? Embrace it with both free play, such as at the playground or riding a bike, and organized sports, such as skiing, skating, or martial arts.

Risk-Taking Enhances Emotional Health

To gain confidence, kids need to try big, scary things. They need to see that even if they fail, they can try again. Eventually, they will master a new skill. And that feels really good. That mastery is more meaningful if the stakes are higher—if there is a bigger risk of failure (or even injury).

Most kids don't immediately try to tackle the biggest, scariest obstacle they can find. Instead, they proceed gradually, advancing higher and higher up a climbing structure or tree as they feel more secure, for example. It might take days or months! Children are actually reducing their own risk, instinctively. They are overcoming their fears, a little at a time. This means practicing persistence and resilience, too; big, important life skills that we all want our kids to have.

When kids move quickly and change position a lot—like when they're swinging high on a swing, or dangling upside-down from the monkey bars, both behaviors that parents might see as risky—they are developing their vestibular system.

And surprisingly, that system helps kids regulate their emotions and even pay attention at school.

Play spaces that allow for risky play promote social interactions, such as one child encouraging or helping another. And free, risk-taking play means creativity and problem-solving, too. What's the best way to get up and over a big boulder? Where could we find some big sticks, and what could we make or do with them?

So the next time your child sets out to dangle upside down from a tree branch or ride his bike out of your sight: Take a deep breath and let him do it. It's good for his health.

Sources:

Brussoni M, Gibbons R, Gray C et al. What Is the Relationship between Risky Outdoor Play and Health in Children? A Systematic ReviewInternational Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 2015;12(6):6423-6454.

Kirby J, Levin K, Inchley J. Parental and peer influences on physical activity among Scottish adolescents: a longitudinal study. Journal of Physical Activity and Health. 2011;8(6):785-793.

Sandseter EBH. Categorising risky play—how can we identify risk-taking in children's play? European Early Childhood Education Research Journal. 2007;15(2)237-252.

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