Let Our Kids Play!

The Role and Importance of Risky Play

If you're around kids, you likely hear it nearly every day. Kids being told not to run, to get down from there, no playing tag because they may hurt themselves, stay away from sharp objects, or basically stop doing whatever seems exciting or daring at the time - all in the name of responsible parenting or because someone might get hurt. However, it turns out that our fear of children being harmed may result in less creative and more fearful children while increasing their risks to certain psychopathologies.

Beginning in 2011, Swanson Primary School in New Zealand submitted itself to a university experiment. They agreed to suspend all playground rules, allowing the kids to run, climb trees, jump off swings, slide down a muddy hill, and play in a "loose-parts pit" resembling a mini adventure playground. The teachers feared chaos, but what they got instead was what they described as less naughtiness and bullying. The principal explained that the kids were too busy and engaged to want to cause trouble.

In Norway, Sandseter began observing and interviewing children on playgrounds. In 2011, she published her results in a paper called Children's Risky Play From an Evolutionary Perspective: The Anti-Phobic Effects of Thrilling Experiences.

She concluded that children have a sensory need to feel danger and excitement. This doesn't mean that what they do has to actually be dangerous, only that they feel they are taking a great risk. Engaging in these situations scares them, but they consequently learn to overcome their fear.

Let Our Kids Play: The Role and Importance of Risky Play

In her paper, Sandseter identifies six kinds of risky play:

  1. Exploring heights, or getting the bird's perspective, as she calls it-high enough to evoke the sensation of fear.
  2. Handling dangerous tools-using sharp scissors or knives, or heavy hammers that at first seem unmanageable but that kids learn to master.
  3. Being near dangerous elements-playing near vast bodies of water, or near a fire, so kids are aware that there is danger nearby.
  4. Rough-and-tumble play-wrestling, play-fighting-so kids learn to negotiate aggression and cooperation.
  5. Speed-cycling or skiing at a pace that feels too fast.
  6. Exploring on one's own. This last one Sandseter describes as the most important for the children. Explaining, "When they are left alone and can take full responsibility for their actions, and the consequences of their decisions, it's a thrilling experience".

Sandseter points to evolutionary psychology. Children are born with the instinct to take risks in play, because learning to negotiate risk had been crucial in developing survival skills throughout the ages. Young animals also learn life skills through play. In another era, we would have had to learn to run from danger, defend ourselves, and be independent at times. Even today, growing up is a process of managing fears, calculating risks, testing our physical and psychological boundaries, and learning to make sound decisions. By taking risks in play, children are effectively subjecting themselves to a form of exposure therapy in order to overcome their fear by forcing themselves engage in a range of activities which evoke fear.

If children never go through this process, a fear could potentially turn into a phobia. Sandsete writes, "Our fear of children being harmed may result in more fearful children and increased levels of psychopathology".

She also cites a study showing that people who injured themselves falling from heights when they were between 5 and 9 years old are less likely to be afraid of heights at age 18. She adds, "Risky play with great heights will provide a desensitizing or habituating experience".

Other research also suggests overprotected kids grow up more fearful, take fewer risks, and are less creative. Joe Frost, an influential safety crusader, sums it up when he says, "Reasonable risks are essential for children's healthy development". The hyper vigilant attitudes and policies restricting kids' play are seemingly not in the best interest of our children despite the best of intentions.

Also see TedX Talk: Our Relationship to Risk.


Rosin H (2014) Hey! Parents Leave Those Kids Alone. The Atlantic, April 2014, 75-86.

Sandseter EB, Kennair LE (2011) Children's risky play from an evolutionary perspective: the anti-phobic effects of thrilling experiences. Evol Psychol. 21;9(2):257-84.

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