Do Children Need Risky Play? Too Many Rules May Reduce Resiliency

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Playing soccer – does the risk of injury outweigh the benefits? Photo Credit:  Derek Jensen

Child development experts around the world are alarmed at the reduction in free play allowed children at home, school, and in the community.

Simultaneously, schools are pressured to provide more physical exercise within the school day to counteract rising rates of obesity and diabetes.

How Much Risk is Too Much?

In November, 2011,The National Post reported that schools in Toronto, Ontario had banned almost all balls on playgrounds following an incident where a parent was hit in the head with a soccer ball.

Students responded with petitions, protesting the ban and many parents agreed, but school is not the only setting where children’s play is being restricted.

How can the correct balance be struck between safety and the excitement of creative, free play?  Is unstructured play really necessary?  How much risk is too much?  These are questions that have been explored in recent research.

Anushka Asthana, education correspondent for The Observer in Britain, reported on an extensive literature review by Play England in November, 2008, which revealed that half of Britain’s children had been banned from tree-climbing and many had been banned from playing tag.  Even hide and seek were considered too risky by some parents.  While the potential dangers involved in tree-climbing are obvious, the same study pointed out that falling out of bed resulted in almost three times as many hospitalizations than falling out of trees did.

Evolutionary Reason for Risky Behaviour

Exploring Nature; Risking Minor Injuries. Image by Jim Bailey

Children playing at the beach will enthusiastically build shelters for themselves out of driftwood, despite the risk of slivers, scrapes, stings, bumps and bruises.   This is independent discovery learning, and their dreams will incorporate this new learning into existing memory networks while the bumps and bruises heal.

The Journal of Evolutionary Psychology reported, in 2011, that risky play appears to have an evolutionary anti-phobic effect.   For example, children have a natural and adaptive fear of heights which protects them from intentionally exposing themselves to dangerous heights.  Despite this fear, they tend to take gradually increasing risk with heights and in doing so are able to desensitize themselves and avoid a phobia that would interfere with normal life.  In taking risks, with adult guidance, children experience the positive emotion of excitement paired with the experience of coping safely, which reduces the level of fear and anxiety.

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