Eight-year-old Finn Riley was flying his drone at a Denver park when the device got stuck halfway up a 50-foot ponderosa pine. Without hesitation, the boy climbed up the tree and shimmied his way onto a branch to retrieve the aircraft.
Then he got stuck. From the ground, Finn’s self-proclaimed “hands-off dad” discussed the best way to descend. “He started to hesitate, so I climbed up to him,” Chad Riley says. “We figured it out together.”
Even though an element of danger was involved, Riley wanted to give his son the space to make his own decisions. And he might be on to something. Play experts say that an element of risk during play is an important component of child development.
“As kids experiment with the world through risky play, they’re learning risk management skills, self-confidence, and resilience,” says academic research scientist Mariana Brussoni. She defines risky play as thrilling and exciting play where children are engaging with uncertainty and might face physical injury.
And research supports the idea that rough-and-tumble play enhances a child’s overall well-being. A 2021 study published in the journal Child Indicators Research found that risky play activities such as balancing, climbing, and downhill racing (such as on a bike or skis) promote mastery of important life skills like risk assessment. What’s more, it increases executive-functioning skills like focus and concentration, Brussoni says.
Wondering how to incorporate more risky play into your child’s routine routine? Here are some simple ways to get started.
How parents can get over their fear of risky play
Inviting risk—and danger—can feel counterintuitive to parents. But letting kids experience risky situations has numerous benefits.
“Yes, our kids might get hurt, but when things go wrong they realize, ‘That didn't kill me. I'm still here and I can manage it,’’’ Brussoni says. And when children succeed at risky play, that surge of self-confidence gives them the courage to push themselves even further.
Pediatrician David Krol, medical director for Connecticut Children’s Care Network, suggests that nervous parents start by staying just outside of their kids’ line of vision—you can see them, but they can’t see you. Avoid the natural urge to intervene at the first sign of a problem.
“Usually kids find a way out of the situation themselves if you wait a few more seconds,” says play researcher Ellen Beate Hansen Sandseter, who co-authored the 2021 study above. “If you have the courage to do that, both you and your child will learn so much more than if you just jump in and stop the whole thing.” Brussoni even recommends a 17-second rule before speaking up to determine if your child is really at risk of serious injury. If not, try not to weigh in.
Children themselves might have some hesitancy about risky play, so a parent’s reaction is key. Avoid shouting “Be careful!” which Brussoni says can break the concentration of a child trying to, say, hop from rock to rock across a stream.
Instead, offer concrete safety advice: “Hey, there’s a branch near your head. Make sure you look up.” Brussoni says that way, kids learn to navigate risk on their own.
Ideas for encouraging risky play
One of the best places to encourage safe-but-slightly-risky free play is in nature. Anyone can play outside regardless of age or size. “Nature is an open-ended environment that has opportunities for everyone,” says Sandseter, also a professor at Norway’s Queen Maud University College of Early Childhood Education.
Here, Brussoni and Sandseter offer tips for sprinkling an element of risk into your kid’s play.
Find spaces to play. Children need fun, exciting places to go that might inspire a little risk, Brussoni says. These are often spots that adults don’t really notice, like ditches, alleys, and empty parking lots. It’s in these spaces that kids feel like they can take ownership, so be open to different play environments.
Interact with playmates. Playing outside with other children can be inherently risky as kids negotiate interpersonal challenges and manage difficult emotions. For example, if one child really wants to build a fort around a boulder while her playmate just wants to climb it, they’ll have to reach a compromise. Brussoni advises that parents encourage self-directed play with other children without intervention, even if it seems like kids are going down a slightly risky road.
That includes rough-and-tumble play. Contest games such as play-wrestling, play-fighting, play-fencing, and chasing are great ways for kids to test their boundaries against each other and learn to regulate power dynamics, Sandseter says.
Play from great heights. When a child climbs very high, she gets a unique perspective of looking down on the world. Though Sandseter says playing on a climbing tower or frame is fine, nothing beats climbing a tree to strengthen motor, physical, and spatial orientation skills.
Move at rapid speeds. Sandester says the need for speed can boost kids’ strength and motor skills, especially when there’s a feeling of losing control: Think rolling or running down a hill, biking, skating, or sledding. (It’s even more effective, she adds, if kids have to move around objects.) For younger children, swinging is a good way to explore speed.
Use dangerous tools. Supervised play and activities with “dangerous” tools helps with fine and gross motor skills. Instead of shying away from things like hammers, axes, and whittling knives, Sandseter recommends teaching your kids how to use them safely.
Provide plenty of loose parts. By incorporating lots of loose parts into a child’s play environment—think planks, crates, tarps, tires, and branches—they have the freedom to build dens, ramps, and other structures that might introduce a little risk. Look for public spaces that already have these things lying around, or toss a few into your backyard and see what happens.
Let an expert supervise. For parents who might be nervous about letting kids loose around tools and spare tires, an adventure playground might be a great compromise. Designed to allow children to play with slightly unsafe materials while staff watches for hazards, these spaces let kids take healthy risks while they play. “Adventure playgrounds tend to have a lot of materials so kids can build their own structures and come up with different forms of risky play,” Brussoni says.
Engage with dangerous-ish nature. Kids are often so absorbed in play that they don’t perceive the same threat as adults would when they, say, run around an campfire or play tag near a cliff. That doesn’t mean those elements should be completely off-limits. Sandseter advises that parents provide appropriate supervision so children can experience these dangers in a safe way. Some ideas: Hike up a mountain as a family, or swim out together to a deeper part of the ocean.
Disappear. Kids don’t have to get completely lost to engage in this type of risky play. But they do need to feel like they’re in control and responsible for themselves. By keeping an eye on them from a distance, Sandseter says parents can allow them to manage the consequences of their own decisions and blossom into autonomous individuals.
Support and scaffold your child’s play. Brussoni suggests that adults help kids take control of their playtime by helping them identify and manage potential hazards, like broken glass. For example, if your child is climbing a tree and you notice some dead branches that won’t support their weight, you might say, “What do you notice about that branch? What do you think you should do? How are you thinking about your next steps?” That way, kids are not only learning to navigate risk but are developing problem-solving skills as well.