Introduce Risky Play Into Your Kid's Life

CC BY 2.0. Marcus Hansson

Parents are told kids need an element of risk, but how does one actually go about doing that?

If you are a parent to young children, you've probably heard by now that kids need to engage in risky play in order to develop optimally. When kids are allowed to "test their boundaries and flirt with uncertainty," as University of British Columbia paediatrics professor Mariana Brussoni describes it, they gain better social skills, physical strength and balance, risk management skills, resilience, and confidence.

This sounds fabulous in principle, but we live in a world obsessed with creating boundaries for children. Safety regulations in school playgrounds and public parks have lengthy lists of things kids are not allowed to do. Parents are petrified that their children might get abducted or injured, even though the statistics show that abductions are virtually non-existent and a child is far more likely to die in a car than anywhere else.

So how is one supposed to go about introducing risky play into kids' lives? Where does one even start? What follows is a list of practical suggestions for adding elements of risk to play, based on my own experience as a parent to three young and highly energetic children, and on much of the reading and research I've done over the years.


muddy toddler

Bev Sykes/CC BY 2.0

Spend time outside. This is the first place to go if you want to make play riskier. Leave the 'safe' indoors. Hang out in the backyard. Go for walks. Make it a goal to visit a neighborhood playground several times a week. Eventually, send them outside alone. You can watch them from the window, but it's important for them to feel comfortably independent outside. Set boundaries so you don't worry about them going too far.

Stop giving warnings. Listen carefully to the language you use when speaking to children. Avoid saying, "Be careful!" "That's too high!" or "That's dangerous" -- unless, of course, it actually is. Kids will internalize these warnings and start to feel fearful when they shouldn't be.

Let kids take the lead outside. Let them determine what they want to explore when you go outside. Instead of grabbing their hand and insisting that you follow a trail, allow them to explore the surrounding forest, splash in a puddle, or climb fallen logs. Find a creek and build a dam.

Always dress kids appropriately. Don't ever put clothes on kids that you don't want to get dirty or ruined. Free your child from the adult-centric constraints of needing to stay clean. For the record, mud holes are far more popular among little kids than sandboxes. Embrace it!

Build a treehouse. Give your kid a place to play up in the trees, far above the ground.

Build a zip line in your backyard. These are a staple in many Brazilian public parks, but rare in North America. They're a good way to keep kids entertained outside and to give them a thrill. You can raise it as high as you want above the ground.

Enrol them in swimming lessons so that they can enjoy water sports safely and confidently.

Listen to your kid. If he or she wants to do something independently, say yes. Think carefully before introducing doubt into their own minds. It's crucial to remember that kids are actually very good at gauging risk themselves. As Prof. Brussoni writes, "It’s not up to parents or experts to decide what is risky play for a particular child." Let the kid decide.


chopping wood

© K Martinko

Give your child tools to use. Supply them with a hammer, a small saw, nails, and boards. Allow them to construct to their heart's content. Give them shovels for digging in dirt or snow. Let them have a corner of your garage or yard for their own, where their projects are undisturbed and allowed to develop. Build a mud kitchen. Let them chop kindling with a small hatchet while supervised.

Venture out in inclement weather. Teach your child not to fear snow, rain, frigid cold, or wind. Dress appropriately and find an activity that's fun enough to distract from the less-than-perfect conditions. Think sledding, skiing, ice-fishing, snowshoeing, mountain biking, etc.

Spend time in boats. If you live near water, see if you can buy an old canoe, kayak, or rowboat, or rent/borrow one periodically. See if someone can teach them how to sail. Build a raft with old lumber and go on an expedition. Playing near water is a 'risky' activity that thrills children and teaches them valuable lessons.

Let them climb as high as they want. The basic rule of thumb is that, if a child can get up into a tree, they should be allowed to climb as they please. But if a kid can't get up and asks for help, then that's probably something they shouldn't be climbing. Visit a high-ropes course or a rock-climbing gym.

"It’s not up to parents or experts to decide what is risky play for a particular child." -- Mariana Brussoni


BMX bike

Willan Soares/CC BY 2.0

Let your child to play with fire. Teach him or her the basics of fire safety, such as building fires far away from anything that could catch fire and having a big pail of water nearby. Show them how to stack twigs and crumple paper. Let them stoke it and poke it. Show them how to cook food over the coals.

Let your child play at high speed. Kids crave speed, and it's arguably far safer to let them do it under their own power than waiting till they're behind the wheel of a car. Give them a bicycle and helmet and allow them to race down hills. Show them where the local BMX or skate park is, and let them go there alone. Seek out the steepest sledding hills in winter. Take them to the skating rink. Don't tell them to slow down; let them make that judgement call.

Go on adventure trips. Take them on a canoe trip, where they can stay out in the wilderness for an extended period of time. If you know what you're doing (or know someone who does), try a winter camping trip, an incredible experience. Do a multi-day hiking or biking trip together -- a fabulous bonding experience for young teens and parents.

Please share in the comments below any ideas you have for introducing risky play to children of all ages.