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  • Let Your Child Climb High, Run Fast, Wander Off! 6 Types of Risky Play Your Child Needs

    Risky play is scary for parents, but kids have so much to gain.
    by Kate Borbon .
  • According to Vanessa, her child has been engaging in risky play since he was a little over a year old!
    PHOTO BY Courtesy of Vanessa Aniñon Salva
    We may think that kids would rather play on their smartphones and tablets. But if they grew up free to run outside the house, ride bikes, or climb trees, they are likely to engage in those activities than staying indoors and seated on a couch. Why are there more kids who are not playing outdoors?
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    If we take out gadgets and the lack of space (a valid concern) from the equation, parents are understandably worried about the possibility of physical injury resulting from risky play like the above. Kids are kids, and it fills parents with anxiety that they become overprotective. But if kids are not allowed to play and explore their natural environment, it affects their development, including their socio-emotional skills.

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    Research has shown that children have much to gain from risky play, and a post of a mom from our Facebook group Smart Parenting Village shows just how much. 

    Vanessa Aniñon Salva, a mom from Davao, shares how and why she encourages her son to engage in risky play. She wrote that her son had been interested in activities like climbing since he was 1 year and 4 months old.

    “Mahilig na mahilig po siyang umakyat to the point na ang bukambibig niya araw-araw is ‘saka’ [the Bisaya word for ‘climb’],” Vanessa shared. “Everywhere we go, kapag may pwedeng akyatin, aakyatin niya and we’re not hesitant of his ability to do it.”

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    She also elaborated that she prefers to follow her child’s lead when it comes to how he wants to play, though there are still times when she feels scared for his safety. The photos and videos she shared showed her son climbing ladders and playground equipment, making his way through a maze of tires, and crawling on all fours outdoors!

    Vanessa shares that although sometimes she still gets scared, she prefers following her child's lead in how he wants to play.
    PHOTO BY Courtesy of Vanessa Aniñon Salva
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    What is risky play?

    In an article for the journal Evolutionary Psychology, Ellen Sandseter, a professor at Queen Maud University College of Early Childhood Education in Trondheim, Norway who is a well-known expert on play, defines risky play as “thrilling and exciting forms of play that involve a risk of physical injury.”

    This type of play usually occurs outdoors and involves children participating in activities that they have never done before, leading them to feel out of control, and to an opportunity for challenge and the testing of limits. According to Sandseter, rather than producing fear in the child, risky play can actually allow him to experience “a more thrilling emotion.”

    Sandseter notes that one main reason why children love to engage in risky play is that it gives them pleasant emotions since they can master risks and overcome challenges that they never before thought they would be able to do.

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    Why risky play is good for kids

    It’s easy to see why many parents feel uncomfortable with the idea of their children engaging in play that can lead to them getting hurt. However, research has found that risky play actually poses a variety of benefits for children, in all the different aspects of child development.

    One way to see how children can benefit from risky play — and play, in general — is by looking at laboratory experiments performed with animals. An article on Psychology Today cites that in experiments done with rats, young rats who had been deprived of play tended to grow up “emotionally crippled.”

    “When placed in a novel environment, they overact with fear and fail to adapt and explore as a normal rat would,” the article reads. “When placed with an unfamiliar peer, they may alternate between freezing in fear and lashing out with inappropriate, ineffective, aggression.”

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    According to the article, the findings of these studies have led researchers to believe that play serves as a way to teach young mammals how to regulate and deal with feelings of anger and fear. In a similar vein, when children are allowed to engage in play, especially the kind of play that can be dangerous and risky, they are allowed the opportunity to figure out how they can manage their fear and adapt their behavior to overcome it.

    Risky play also helps kids develop their motor skills and lets them stay active — something that children of all ages need. Just this April, the World Health Organization (WHO) released new guidelines on physical activity and screen time for kids. One of the recommendations states that children under 5 years old need at least 180 minutes of physical activity per day, during which they are encouraged to spend at least 60 minutes in moderate- to vigorous- activities.

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    The types of risky play that every child needs

    Though it can be scary to see children engaging in risky play, experts emphasize the many benefits that kids have to gain from these types of activities. These categories of risky play, as discussed by Sandseter, include climbing great heights, exploring unfamiliar places, and even playing with dangerous tools.

    Climbing high

    This type of play involves climbing trees and other tall structures, which, according to Psychology Today, gives the child a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment in her ability to reach that height. Climbing allows children to develop physical skills such as muscle strength and endurance, as well as balance and coordination.

    One more reason why climbing is a good kind of play for kids is that it gives them the opportunity to know and test their limits. Experts say that children are more aware of their limits than adults are, and are highly capable of telling if the risk if manageable or if it is beyond their capacities.

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    Rough-and-tumble play

    This type of play involves chasing and wrestling with one another, which can help develop a child’s physical strength, endurance, and, perhaps most important, self-control. When children engage in roughhousing with their peers, it is unavoidable for things to get heated and for them to get angry or pissed, probably because they got hurt or feel that they are at a disadvantage.

    But, as Fatherly writes, “if they don’t learn to control the impulse and escalate to actual fighting, children figure out quickly that the consequence of that is that they can’t play anymore. If they want to keep having fun, they have to learn how to cool down once they start to see red.”

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    Running fast

    Children enjoy running at high speeds, but while parents may tend to tell them to slow down, this type of play can actually help kids develop a sense of perceptual awareness and spatial orientation. According to Psychology Today, this type of play can also involve swinging, sliding, and the use of items like bicycles, skateboards, and skates, which go fast enough to give the child a feeling of thrill.

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    Playing with dangerous objects

    According to Sandseter, this type of play involves items such as knives, hammers, and ropes. While, yes, it is definitely scary for young children to be allowed to play with such tools, Sandseter claims that this kind of play can be regarded as object play, since it will enable children to explore how to manipulate those tools using actions such as throwing and hitting.

    She also notes that object play is beneficial for children because it is a way for them to learn about the properties and functions of different tools and items. Play with dangerous tools and objects can also lead to kids acquiring various skills that can be valuable to them in daily life.

    Reckless play

    Psychology Today says that reckless play involves kids playing near dangerous elements such as fire and water. This form of play, while undoubtedly scary for parents, allows children to explore their environment and to become familiar with its possibilities and constraints, and how to handle them safely, says Sandseter. She also points out that preventing children from engaging in this type of play can increase a child’s possibility of developing phobias and can hinder her from knowing how to cope with heights, water, or fire.

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    Going too far or getting lost

    Previous research has found that children tend to enjoy going off on their own without adult supervision, and that it is their way of exploring their environment and becoming at home in it. Another skill that children learn from this type of play is the perception of movement, size, shape, form, and depth, along with other spatial-orientation abilities.

    At the end of the day, allowing kids to spend time playing and exploring will only do them more good than harm. Therefore, parents are encouraged to avoid restricting their children in the activities they can do — while still making sure they are kept safe.

    “Practice being calm and just be on the lookout for danger and possible [slips and falls],” Vanessa shared, “but do not interfere with your child.” Instead, let him take the lead, and watch him learn new skills in the process!

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