Risky Play:

What is it & Why Does Your Child Need It?

FACT: You want your children to grow up healthy, happy, confident and resilient – the backbone characteristics to life-long fulfillment and well being.

FACT: You also want your children to be safe and free from pain and suffering.

These are both natural, no-brainer desires of most parents. But what if one desire prevents the other from happening? What if in always keeping your children safe, you end up preventing them from forming life-skills that will benefit them in the long run?

Learn how to achieve both goals by supporting your child’s risky play without having to become a ball of anxiety at the same time.


What is Risky Play?

Risky Play is any form of child-led play that engages in an element of pushing one’s limit: physically, mentally, and emotionally. It includes:

  • Unsupervised play
  • Rough-and-tumble play
  • High speed
  • Great heights
  • Using tools
  • Using elements like water or fire

Risky play can occur indoor or outdoor, though most on this list will be more free-form and easier to engage in an outdoor setting.

Why are the benefits of Risky Play?

Play is serious learning for children. Beyond lessons or parental guidance, play is the major contributor to many life-skill developments such as:

  • self-confidence
  • self-regulation
  • social emotional intelligence
  • understanding social norms
  • problem solving
  • resiliency
  • creativity

Children are taking risks during play all the time. Engaging in risky play is how children test their development, understand their limits, ask questions, and make discovery about the world. If risk is limited, eliminated, or otherwise interrupted, you risk the following for your child:

  • higher self-consciousness
  • higher self-doubt
  • lower physical abilities
  • lower adaptability
  • lower ability to assess risk
  • higher levels of anxiety

I want to specifically highlight an additional risk you might be taking on…

… If you limit, eliminate, or interrupt risky play: there’s an increase chance of injury to your child. 

Wait, what?

That’s right – when you prevent risky play, your child miss the opportunity to test their physical limits. They don’t know what they are capable of, they don’t know how to assess the risk in a situation, they haven’t practiced problem solving skills, nor have they learned how to adapt to their environment.

Because you cannot reasonably expect to be able to watch your child 24/7 throughout their childhood, when your child does ultimately find themselves in a situation of risk, they can’t self-monitor or figure out how to get out of it. This is a hazardous place for your child to be and is where injuries will happen.

How to support Risky Play

Now that you know what is risky play and you know why it is greatly beneficial for your child, here what supporting risky play looks like!


Do Eliminate Hazard, Not Risk

Part of why adults find it hard to support risky play is because we see safety hazards everywhere we look. This is great! Eliminate them! Yes, I just spent the whole post telling you to allow for risk. Risk and hazards are not the same thing. I like this definition from Be Active Kids:

       Risk is something the child can see and can learn to assess.
       Hazard is something the child cannot see.

Still uncertain? Here are a few examples:

       Risk is having logs in the yard and your child stacks and jumps off of them.
       Hazard is having various sharp rusty nails poking out of those logs.

       Risk is children playing pretend sword fighting using pool noodles.
Hazard is having loose wires around children’s play fighting area.

Using our well-trained and experienced adult eyes, remove hazards that your child cannot see. Then they can take risks and you can feel less anxious knowing hazards are minimized.


Start Young

Like anything, practice is important to develop risky play skills. Even in your infant’s first year of life, they can engage in age appropriate risky play. This way, they start building awareness of their physical boundaries, understanding of the physical world and properties around them, tune up their risk management skills, and start gaining confidence in their capabilities to navigate their own world.

Risky play in children age 0-1 looks like:

  • Allowing infants to pull up on furniture
  • Allowing infants to push a toy or furniture
  • Allowing infants to climb up and down 2-3 steps on a stair

Allow your infants to do these with as little interference from you as possible. Afterall, you have eliminated hazards so that they can learn through risky play!

Take Small Steps

So, your child is no longer an infant. It’s never too late to support risky play. Children haven’t missed the boat to learn life skills if you have so far protected them from risk. Take small steps to encourage healthy doses of risky play. Here are a few ideas to get you started: 

  • Bring your child on an easy nature walk with you. Allow them to do as they please: climb, dig, pick up, and jump around. Let your inner kid out and jump around yourself!
  • Wrestle about with your child. Get silly and toss around in bed together.


Step Back

How many of you have lifted your child onto a play structure? Slid them down the slide. To encourage risky play, stop helping your child.

Remember your risky play goals. Yes, it is fun seeing your child enjoy the slide, but if you lift them up onto a structure, not only do you take away their chance to test if they can do it themselves, but you also take away the joy of mastery and accomplishment.

To young children, there is a ton of joy in the journey, not in the completion, of play. They see, sense, learn, and feel so much during the process of getting onto the slide and then, yes, eventually sliding down it. They might not get it the first try, nor the 10th… but when they do, they would have learnt so many invaluable things about themselves and the world around them.

So, stop helping your child. There will be protest the first few times. And if they do, the next tip will help.


S.A.M. is your friend

Do you foresee a tough challenge ahead for your child?
Is your child is stuck up on a structure and having a hard time to get down?

When you feel like you need to do SOMETHING, and sitting back and observing doesn’t feel like an option, remember: S.A.M. is your friend.

Instead of yelling out “Be Careful!” or instantly removing your child from the structure, try this instead:

1) Share an Observation: “Gee, it looks like you’re having a hard time coming back down.”

2) Ask a Question: “Do you see a path you can take?”

3) Make a Suggestion: “You can try turning around so you can use both your hands and feet to climb down.”

When you can do this, you are supporting your child to problem solve this challenge while showing them trust and confidence in what they can do, AND respecting their autonomy to try for themselves. This is a powerful combination to achieve the healthy, happy, confident, and resilient child you want for your child.



Know Your Child

We are all individuals with different temperaments, skills, capabilities, and characteristics. It’s important that you recognize this for both your child and for yourself.

Willingness to take risks is like anything else and depends on the make-up of the person. Everyone’s comfort level of risk taking is different.

If your child is a non-risk taker:

  • Try to reframe labels: Your child isn’t “scared, shy, or anxious”. Your child is observant, cautious, and a thinker.
  • Be a play buddy: Remember that even when you are involved in play, let the child lead and direct how you play.
  • Co-regulate until they can Self-regulate: be a play buddy until you help co-regulate your child to feel confident and capable in taking risks. Then they can take over and self-regulate any heighten emotions during independent risky play.

If your child rushes head first into risks:

  • Try a reframe labels: Your child isn’t “uncontrollable, reckless, and terrible listener”, they are “energetic, motivated, and focused”.
  • Be a play buddy: Remember that even when you are involved in play, let the child lead and direct how you play.
  • Co-regulate until they can Self-regulate: be a play buddy until you help co-regulate your child to learn of their and your limits in taking risks. Then they can take over and self-regulate independent risky play.

Remember, you need to know yourself too. Risky play might be new to you, and your set of individual elements might match or mismatch with your child’s. It’s okay to honor your own level of comfort. It’s not about being perfect, it’s about taking each moment as practice.

Check out other recent posts on Imperfect Parent

6 Steps to Setting Limits with your Toddler

How to Make Toddler Transitions Easier