As more and more studies reveal the importance of kids getting outside to play, a pair of Norwegian psychologists are weighing in with a different angle. Yes, they urge, get the kids playing, but get them playing in ways that involve risk -- speed, heights, danger! We coddle our kids, especially when it comes to play, they say, dangerous play is the way to go. And their ideas are gaining ground with a number of international playground experts.
In their paper published in Evolutionary Biology, Leif Kennair and Ellen Sandseter explore the functions of risky play from a modular evolutionary psychology perspective. Risky play is described as thrilling and exciting forms of play that involve a risk of physical injury.
They note that different types of risky play might be due to specific adaptations, and thus have specific evolutionary functions. Disturb those functions by being too overprotective (e.g. “don’t climb on that!!”) and the result may be nothing short of anxiety disorders. They write:
Part of the etiology of psychopathology where the modern environment does not adequately stimulate evolved mental mechanisms. If the child does not receive the adequate stimulation by the environment through risky play, the fear will continue despite no longer being relevant (due to features of the ecology no longer constituting a risk, and the child’s improved competencies due to physical and psychological maturation) and may turn into an anxiety disorder.
Risky play should take place outside, usually as challenging and adventurous physical activities. They suggest that children should attempt something they have never done before. And that by tightrope-walking the balance between feeling out of control and overcoming fear, they rehearse handling real-life risky situations in the future.
“Paradoxically, we posit that our fear of children being harmed by mostly harmless injuries may result in more fearful children and increased levels of psychopathology,” note the authors.
Of course, most parents hope to keep their children out of the ER, but statistics of playground accidents from several countries, according to the paper, show that most of the injuries related to children’s play are “species normal” and are injuries that children throughout evolutionary history have experienced without suffering any permanent damage.
Will playground designers take this theory to heart? Will an afternoon at the park become thrilling for children...and terrifying for parents? Landscape Structures in Delano, Minn is upping the ante with some pretty challenging structures, like net climbing structures and their soaring, twisty climbing walls. Judging by the looks of newer playgrounds popping up, others are beginning to follow suit.
Some of the new designs are wonderful, but do they encourage risky-enough play as prescribed by the Norwegian psychologists? And what exactly is risky play? As defined by the study: Great heights, high speed and rough-and-tumble play, dangerous tools, dangerous elements, and the danger of disappearing and/or getting lost.
Let the playground nightmares begin.
Read the whole report here: Children’s Risky Play from an Evolutionary Perspective: The Anti-Phobic Effects of Thrilling Experiences