I want you to look at the above playground from my hometown, and tell me what you see wrong with it? I know it’s hard to guess because you can’t see the whole thing, but the answer is tricky because it is hiding in plain sight.
If you look at the structure of the playground as a whole, it’s very solid. It’s stable—no moving parts or objects that pose any risk or challenge to navigate. No wobbly bridge, no swings, no balance beams or hanging trolley. To be frank, this playground is boring, and I see why there are seldom kids playing on it when I pass by.
Although one could blame developers and city planners for these reduced-risk playgrounds, ultimately we have to look at how we adults treat risky play to notice what’s going on. I’ve never met a parent who doesn’t want the best for their child, and most would do anything it takes to ensure their child is set up for success. However, with certain activities presenting the possibilities for injury, many will restrict their kids from partaking to keep them safe. But what if we’re trading short-term safety for long-term harm?
Certain things happen when kids engage in play that involves some risk. Risk is dangerous, either physically or emotionally, and can provide a lot of opportunities for children. With something at stake, having moderate levels of risk can help develop a tolerance for fear, increase readiness to make decisions and boost confidence.
A review of literature that sought to examine the benefits and downsides of risky play for kids found that risky play provided a lot of opportunities for developing higher levels of physical ability, as well as reducing poor behaviors and aggression. It even noted that while there were chances for injury during play, the risk for later injury declined (likely due to increased physical abilities gained).
Think of it like climbing a tree. There is some legitimate risk to it, as falling out of a tree could do some damage to a 5- or 6-year-old, but there are a lot of benefits. For one, climbing a tree is like doing continual sets of Pull-Ups and Step-Ups over and over again. It also requires decision making and problem solving, as there are multiple options for hand or foot placements without any real directive as to which is best. It also has the potential to build balance, as trees can be blown in the wind and shift the balance points of foot or hand holds.
Although this is just an example of a risky activity, it can shine a light on the pros of risky play.
However, with some risk there is always the inevitable. Risky play involves the potential for loss or injury. Yes, a child could get hurt, but it doesn’t always mean they will. And to withhold an activity because of something that could happen, you will ultimately restrict a child from receiving the benefits that would happen.