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The Importance of Children’s Risky Play

Originally appears in the Spring 2016 issue

It is a common story. A gaggle of children are outside laughing, jumping, and generally running around. Then someone starts a new game or activity that just seems a bit too dangerous …. or is it? The children seem to be having such a good time. So should you let them continue or should you stop the new activity for being too risky? How do you determine if it is too risky?

Risky play is defined as exhilarating or exciting play where there is a possibility of physical injury. Sandseter[i] outlines six different kinds of risky play: speed (e.g., running fast), height (e.g., climbing a tree), with tools (e.g., knives, ropes), elements (e.g., water, fire), rough-and-tumble (e.g., play fighting), and disappearing or getting lost (e.g., independent exploration). Risky play can sound like scary and dangerous play and, as with any type of physical activity, there is the possibility of injury. However, serious injuries are rare and risky play is typically a safe activity.[ii]

Injuries are one of the leading causes of death for children in developed nations so there is good reason for concern. However, injury-related deaths typically do not result from children’s risky play, but rather motor vehicle crashes, suicides, and poisoning. Furthermore, several researchers, teachers and public health practitioners suggest that efforts to keep children as safe as possible have resulted in constraining children’s play and limiting opportunities to be challenged to such an extent that it could be having negative impacts on their health and development. Increasingly, recommendations are being made to shift from keeping children as safe as possible, to as safe as necessary.

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Morgan Yates is a Registered Nurse and PhD student at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. Her research focusses on what factors influence parental perceptions of neighborhood safety, specifically the role of crime, and how parental perceptions of safety influence children’s health. Dr. Mariana Brussoni is an Associate Professor in the Department of Pediatrics and the School of Population and Public Health at the University of British Columbia. She investigates child injury prevention, including developmental importance of children’s risky play.



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