Youth Services Law

Benefits of Risky Play for Children Outweigh the Harms

Child Standing on a PoleAn important and fascinating analytical review from Canada concludes that risky play for children has significant benefits that outweigh potential harm. The researchers reviewed 21 academic studies of children, and concluded that giving children opportunities for risky play increased physical activity, social health, creativity, and resilience.  

“Risky,” of course, does not mean unlimited. The review limited itself to activities “whereby a child can recognize and evaluate a challenge and decide on a course of action,” specifically excluding “hazards that children cannot assess for themselves and that have no clear benefit.” Thus, the article looked at play that included “play at height, speed, near dangerous elements (e.g., water, fire), with dangerous tools, rough and tumble play (e.g., play fighting), and where there is potential for disappearing or getting lost.” All of those types of play showed clear benefits, with risk of injury much lower than what adults assume.  

Rough and tumble play, for example, does not increase aggression among most children. In fact, for boys, rough and tumble play led to greater peer acceptance among the boys in the group. Not surprisingly, in mixed-sex groups, girls and teachers reacted negatively to such play. The researchers concluded that the health and social benefits of all risky types of play outweighed the chances of injury.

The lead author of the study, injury-prevention expert Mariana Brussoni, recently summarized her research in a Maclean’s interview, and noted, “In supervised activities, there’s somebody else guiding the activities; they don’t have to set the goals for what they want to do and how they want to engage in it. When they’re out in the neighborhood, they’re deciding, ‘Okay, let’s build a fort. Let’s play prisoner. Let’s play capture the flag.’ They’re negotiating back and forth to decide what the rules will be, how it’s going to work, who’s going to do what. There’s a lot more opportunity to develop those social skills.”

The lesson for youth organizations, then, is that, while we need to protect children, we also need to allow them time for self-directed activities. Most lawyers, who by nature and training are risk-averse, will advise their clients to constantly supervise the children in their care. More and more of this research, however, is showing that constant supervision carries its own level of harm. Therefore, we need to find ways to monitor children without constantly directing and shielding them. As Dr. Brussoni noted,  “We give kids too little credit. If you just button your lips and let them get on with it, they actually are really good at figuring out their limits. They’re also really good at figuring out other’s limits, and keeping each other within reasonable safety.”

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