How to balance risk and reward in children’s play

Break a leg? Risky play — done right — can be an important developmental step. yourkidsrisk

In the 1990s, Norway — like many countries — enacted regulations on playground design that were intended to protect children from harm. “It resulted in a lot of playgrounds just being torn down, play equipment just removed,” says Ellen Beate Hansen Sandseter, Ph.D., who teaches at the Queen Maud University College of Early Childhood Education.

Empty playgrounds weren’t the only result of the new rules, however. They also — along with the birth of her son, Simon — led Sandseter to undertake groundbreaking research on children’s risky play.

In 2011, Sandseter and a colleague at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology published an article in the journal Evolutionary Psychology that explored six forms of risky play in the context of human development. (See the box at right.) Their conclusion: Risky play helps kids overcome natural phobias like the fear of heights. Here’s a summary of what else they discovered.


Risks, Hazards
Before you send your children out to play in the street, however, it’s important to define a couple of terms. Sandseter says risky play involves “thrilling and exciting forms of play that involve a risk of physical injury.” In risky play, children know they are taking a risk — hence the butterflies in the stomach — and must make a decision. Hazards, though, are very different. They are things adults can see but children can’t, such as a rotten wooden pole on a swing set. “Those are the hazards that adults should focus on and that we have the responsibility to eliminate so children are not injured,” she says

Boo-boos, Broken Arms
Of course, children who engage in risky but not hazardous play can get injured, and Sandseter is OK with that. “Minor injuries are something that’s normal in childhood — something children learn from,” she says. The problem today, she argues, is that some parents can’t distinguish between minor and major injuries. To these worry-prone parents, a broken finger equals a broken arm equals a broken neck, in other words.

Seeking, Avoiding Risk
Sandseter recognizes that every child is different. Some are very risk averse, while others want to face every risk head-on. While the thrill-seekers might seem more worrisome, Sandseter isn’t so sure. “I don’t think it makes them less able to assess the risk and handle the risk — probably the opposite,” she says. “But in cases where children have a diagnosis such as ADHD and things like that, one should maybe follow them closer.”

As for risk-averse kids, Sandseter thinks parents should nudge them toward riskier play. “You should probably help them to challenge themselves and maybe be close to them to be kind of a secure adult that they can lean on if they need to,” she says.

MOST ELEMENTS OF RISKY PLAY show up in Scouting in one form or another. The policies in the Guide to Safe Scouting govern what’s allowed (e.g., COPE activities for older Scouts) and what isn’t (activities like technical tree-climbing).


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