Most parents cringe at the sight of children climbing way up high in an oak tree, swinging upside down on the monkey bars, or going up the slide. These scenarios are scary for parents, but research shows that this kind of play is actually evolutionarily beneficial for children. Playing from heights, rough and tumble play, hiding or being alone, and playing with high speed are all ways in which children engage in “risky play,” which has a multitude of benefits when done in safe environments. “Risky play has been shown to be beneficial to children's development by helping them cope with stressful situations, learn how to follow-through, improve social interaction skills, increase creativity, learn about human mortality, assist in understanding their limitations, recognize areas for improvement, and help form positive, pro-active attitudes.”
Hold your breath, mom, and dad, here are some other research-driven benefits of letting your child take some risks in play:
Working Through Real-Life Phobias and Anxiety
Young children need novelty, adventure, space for exploration, and physical challenges. Risky play provides children an opportunity to work through real life scenarios that may have caused them fear in the past. In having the opportunity to conquer fears through risky play, children build confidence and overcome common phobias.According to Medical News Today, the top 10 most common causes of death and overall risks to human life include heart disease, diabetes, cancer, Alzheimer’s, unintentional accidents such as car accidents, and also suicide. Yet these actual risks to human life are not the things that elicit fear in children. Children have fears such as the fear of heights, wild animals, water, the dark, and being alone. Isn’t it interesting that these common phobias are also the most common themes for children’s play? Climbing high, pretending to be animals, hide and seek… these are the activities that we see children engage in generation after generation. Clearly, children are seeking opportunities to act out scenarios that give them a feeling of anxiety. Over time this gives them a sense of mastery over these fears and phobias.
Cognitive Understanding of the Environment
From babyhood, young children are learning about the cause and effect nature of the world around them. If I do something, something happens as a result. Bumps, bruises, and otherwise common childhood injuries are ways in which children learn about their physical limitations and what they can do safely without getting hurt. A major study by Play England, part of the National Children's Bureau, found that half of all children have been stopped from climbing trees as a result of parents feeling the need to protect their children from injury. The study suggests that when experienced children climb to high heights, they assess the danger and weigh the benefits of jumping based on prior experiences they have had from being at comparable heights. If a child has never experienced being up high or taking physical risks, they are more likely to hurt themselves.
Improved Motor and Sensory Processing Skills
Risky play is active in nature and fulfills a variety of children’s sensory needs. Jumping, climbing, swinging, sliding and hanging are essential in the development of children’s overall motor skills. Body awareness and coordination develop over time as a result of these kinds of movements, children who do not have these opportunities are more likely to be clumsy and have a fear of movement.
Proprioception (the understanding of where your body is in space), relates to when your muscles stretch and contract, which sends messages to your brain about how to coordinate movement. This teaches us how to move our bodies in a way that makes running, playing, and jumping effortless. Children develop proprioceptive awareness through active and risky play, and without opportunities to receive muscle feedback, the brain is not as efficient at directing the body.
Vestibular awareness (related to balance and movement) is formed through experiences like swinging and hanging, where your inner ear has to adjust to your body being in motion where your head is not in perfect upright alignment. These kinds of motions teach your sensory system that your body is able to adapt, realign, and regain balance in order to avoid injury. There is a reason why children seek out active and risky-play: it benefits their entire body.
While it can be nerve-racking to see your child engaging in risky play, research shows that the benefits far exceed the actual danger. So the next time your child says “Look mom!” from the top of a climbing structure, take a deep breath and remember that they are learning.