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


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Overcoming Fears by Developing Skills. Image by Les Trego

Graduated exposure to anxiety-producing stimuli, where the child has control over the degree of exposure, combined with mastery oriented thoughts (e.g.I can do this) is an effective method of reducing anxiety and fear.

Thus the child is able to move the boundary between danger and safety, expanding his/her range of experience and ability.

Over-Protection Reduces Resiliency

Well-intentioned, but inhibiting, protection from age-appropriate risky play could result in more anxiety for children as they are prevented from experiencing the gradual exposure necessary to overcome fears that are no longer relevant due to the child’s development of adequate coping skills.

Minor injuries are a normal part of life, are not usually traumatic to children, and could even be educational, as adults provide appropriate care and encourage the child to carry on.  Serious playground injuries are relatively rare, and usually due to children’s behaviour rather than the equipment used.

Despite risk of injury, observational studies show that children will seek activities that involve height and speed regardless of adults’ restrictions.  The ambiguous pairing of fear and excitement when children are engaged in risky play is motivating; successfully balancing pleasant and unpleasant emotions is intensely rewarding.

Culture and Over-Protective Parenting

Cultural differences influence the degree of protection/restriction provided by parents and early childhood educators.  Scandinavian parents tend to encourage a greater degree of freedom to roam outdoors than some other western countries, for example, while in North America there has been a trend in recent years to reduce risk to the point of boredom.  While rough and tumble play is stimulating for motor and cognitive functions, sedentary play is dangerously unstimulating, with alarming reports of increasing childhood diseases such as diabetes, heart problems, and psychological difficulties such as anxiety and depression.

Developing Resilience in Kids

The adults in childrens’ lives are a powerful influence on developing resilience, the ability to bounce back from inevitable stressors in life.  Resilient children develop empathy, and are less likely to suffer from mental illness.  They develop good problem-solving skills, are courageous about trying new experiences, and have healthy attachments with adults.

Excessive restrictions on exploratory play, and parents’ anxiety about normal risk, can have a negative effect on the development of resilience in children, as too many rules reduce the opportunities for children to improve competence and confidence. Inadequate protection can also negatively impact children’s development of resilience; as in most areas of child-rearing, balance is the key.


Sandseter, E., Kennair, L. Children’s Risky Play from an Evolutionary Perspective:  the Anti-Phobic Effects of Thrilling Experiences. (2011). Evolutionary Psychology, Issue 9, Volume 2. Accessed July 29, 2012.

Stuart Lester and Wendy Russell. Play for a Change:  Play, Policy, and Practice.  A Summary of Perspectives. (2008). Play England. Accessed July 29, 2012.

Grotberg, Edith. A Guide to Promoting Resilience in Children:  Strengthening the Human Spirit. (1995). International Resiliency Project. Accessed July 29, 2012.

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