Why Kids Need Risky Play

by Elizabeth Broadbent
Originally Published: 
kid engaged in risky play

Why do we encourage children to play?

It’s a simple question with a lot of different answers. Ideally, we’d encourage children to play to fuel their imaginations. We’d encourage children to play so they learn independence and self-reliance. We’d encourage child’s play to nurture vital social skills, such as turn-taking and negotiation. We’d encourage play as the essence of childhood, one of the most important things a child does to prepare them for adulthood. And we’d encourage risky play as a cornerstone of that philosophy.

But look around your house. For all the toys, for the fancy swingset and the big, manicured yard, we don’t encourage play for these reasons. For most people, play is a placeholder: it’s the thing we shoo kids off to do when they need to blow off steam. When they get too rowdy to sit quietly. We view recess through a lens of helping kids study more and raising test scores, not as an end in itself.

When children do play, we do our utmost to keep it as safe as possible. We’ve filed off the sharp edges of our playgrounds, replaced the metal with plastic, and coated the ground in foam rubber. There are no natural elements, nothing unpredictable. Sticks are not allowed. Risky play, in America, is as endangered as the polar bear.

Not so in other countries. When asked to show a picture of childhood in Denmark, one professor of education picked a little girl wielding a very sharp saw. As she told Quartz, “I think this captures perfectly how we think about childhood.”

A child! A saw! Someone get an adult! But an adult probably gave her a rudimentary lesson on her how to use it, and now she’s free to amble around and well, saw things. Kids learn by doing, the professor says, “So adults—both teachers and parents—generally get out of the way to let children do what they love,” Jenny Anderson wrote in Quartz, “run, jump, climb, dig, hide, run, and, apparently, do some light carpentry.”

This is the serious business of childhood in Denmark, where kids have space to, well, be children. Their preschools and kindergartens emphasize a hands-off, child-led approach that de-emphasizes academics in favor of free play. After school, kids are let loose in playgrounds full of natural elements, where normal bumps and bruises are expected. Not broken arms, of course, but normal scrapes, cuts, and bumps are par for the course. They are, after all, part of childhood, and no one’s going to limit their creative, adventurous play to avoid them.

If someone saw my kids setting a fire in the front yard, they’d call the cops. If someone saw Danish kids making a fire in a forest playground on the edges of Copenhagen, they’d continue on their way because it’s nothing out of the ordinary.

All this risky play gives Danish kids things American kids lack — other than basic carpentry skills. Play is seen as something that develops crucial life skills like independence and autonomy, along with a love of nature. It’s no surprise that with their love of nature, and the love they’ve encouraged in their children, that the Danes have taken an international lead in the fight against climate change. They’ve managed to keep their primary energy consumption unchanged since the 1970s, due to their use of renewable energy. That’s some serious commitment to nature, and it’s partly because they teach their children, at an early age, to value it: and part of that value comes through the risky play they encourage.

There are other benefits to risky play. Barry A. Garst, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Youth Development Leadership at Clemson University, says that while we know children learn through play, children learn more and have better experiences through so-called risky play.

“In general,” he told Scary Mommy, “risky play provides greater opportunities for children to test and affirm their capabilities, as well as opportunities to experience, cope with, and problem-solve situations involving failure.” And children need failure in order to learn: fear of failure is what we know produces the helicoptered kids so unable to cope with life that their parents come along on their job interviews.

And while we think of risky play as something for kids, it’s also important for teens as well, whose brains, Barry Garst says, are primed for risk-taking. “Play-based activities can provide teenagers with opportunities to meet their developmental needs for risk-taking in ways that are safer than other forms of risk taking, such as experimenting with risky behaviors.”

And all of these things Barry Garst talks about are things kids need in the 21st century job market. His wife, Stephanie Garst, executive director of the U.S. Play Coalition, says that if you add an element of risk to play, the learning expands exponentially.

“With risky play, children learn how to better navigate their world and manipulate their bodies by testing their physical and mental limits,” Stephanie Garst says. “By allowing children to explore through risky play, parents and caregivers are encouraging independence, self-reliance and resilience.” All things your kids’ employer is going to want them to have instead of you sitting next to them at that job interview.

So go ahead. Give junior a saw. I let my 7-year-old go to town with some hedge trimmers the other day, and he was thrilled with his newfound ability to destroy virginia creeper. No, he didn’t hack off one of his digits or anyone else’s. His brother pounded rocks in the other corner of the yard. He wanted to make a Neolithic spearhead. Both were engaged. Both were dirty. Both were happy. Both were learning. Maybe next time I’ll let them set something on fire.

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