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How ‘Risky Play’ Helps Build Healthier Brains

We’ve all witnessed the excitement in a child’s eyes when they run like a maniac during a game of chase. Or how proud they look waving back from that tree they just climbed. Activities like this challenge their physical strength and help them discover their limits, often involving a slight risk of injury (which, of course, they bravely ignore!) 

These activities are examples of what is known as ‘risky play’.

Common examples of risky play include:

  • Climbing a tall tree or swinging from monkey bars, because children love heights (from an evolutionary point of view we used to live in trees so this love of climbing is not surprising!).
  • Exploring a hill or playing hide and seek. They also get thrilled by the possibility of getting lost (and found again – particularly when parents are playing too).
  • Running or riding their bike like crazy. The need for speed is real!
  • Chasing or wrestling. Such activities are known as “rough and tumble play” and are an essential component of learning regulation, limit setting, self-control, and enjoying positive physical touch which helps to reduce the stress hormone cortisol and aids attachment and bonding by releasing hits of dopamine (the pleasure chemical) and oxytocin (involved in bonding).
  • Playing close to dangerous elements, like fire, or standing close to an edge.

Benefits of ‘risky play’ for brain development

Risky play is an adventure you should let your little explorers enjoy. If we do too much 

‘helicoptering’ we deny our children a chance to grow many skills such as resiliency and other positive personality traits such as a problem-solving mindset, self-regulation, creative thinking, teamwork, adaptability, self-belief, and confidence.  

Other benefits of risky play include:

1. Risk assessment skills

Risk assessment is a valuable life skill that goes beyond knowing one’s physical limits and strength. Although the risk during risky play is mostly physical, children must use their cognitive skills to calculate the potential danger. For example, they must decide whether it is safe to move further into a field or hide under a shaky construction or how high to climb and if certain branches will hold their weight. To do so, they need to look for and analyse cues that will help them evaluate the situation (which are higher-order learning skills). Therefore, risk assessment skills involve sustained attention, alertness and keen observation, critical thinking, creativity, adaptability, impulse control and problem-solving. 

2. Self-regulation 

Risk sometimes results in failure such as a fall or finishing last in a running competition.  During risky play, however, children learn how to self-regulate and regain their composure when situations feel challenging. They also learn how to better manage feelings like fear, frustration or anger. 

3. Motor skills and muscle development

Risky play requires extensive use of muscle strength, balance, and coordination of movements, especially in activities that involve height or speed, like climbing, jumping and chasing. Being physically challenging, risky play helps children maintain a healthy weight, build muscle strength, and have stronger body awareness (which also helps with regulation capacity and is the foundation for emotional intelligence to develop!). To further enhance motor skills, encourage your children to engage in sensory and messy play as well which benefits nervous system regulation and helps to reduce stress responses and tactile defense responses!.

4. Executive thinking skills

Risky play is not only physically but also mentally and emotionally demanding. As we mentioned above, children are often required to weigh potential dangers and different scenarios, make quick decisions and deal with the consequences. Through this process, children enhance their executive thinking skills, which involve working memory, flexible thinking, understanding of cause and effect relations, impulse control and self-control. 

Working memory is the ability to retain the information; therefore it accelerates and enhances learning. 

Flexible thinking is the ability to see the correlation between different things and to view a situation from different perspectives. It’s particularly useful for problem-solving. 

Lastly, self-control refers to the ability to ignore distractions and resist impulsive behaviours. This is a skill that helps with self-regulation and socialising ability.

5. Self-confidence

Overcoming fears and physical barriers without help from their parents empowers children with a sense of autonomy and self-efficacy. As they continue to be in control, make their own decisions, and handle their failures, children become more confident and independent every day.

6. Social skills

Risky play is primarily a social activity. Children gather together just to have fun, but through play and engagement, they are able to practice developing strategies and solving disputes. These interactions encourage the development of social skills, such as communication, conflict management, empathy, and respect for others (and self). Through sharing adventurous experiences, children also develop stronger bonds, grow in their confidence and start forming true friendships.

7. Reduced risk of anxiety and depression

Apart from alleviating stress, as most physical activities do, risky play also protects children from developing anxiety and depression in their adult life. More specifically, it protects them from forming a habit of succumbing to fear and excessive worry, which is linked to adult phobias, anxiety, and depression. Taking reasonable risks during play helps children to overcome their fears which builds a healthier, more resilient adaptable brain – and remember behaviour is a symptom of what is going on in the brain!

The benefits of allowing and encouraging our children to engage in some forms of risky play cannot be underestimated. The risks are actually not usually as serious as our anxious parent minds have led us to believe. Some minor scrapes and bumps are to be expected, but estimates show that injuries that require medical treatment are actually quite rare. 

Remember that although you should encourage risky play, you should never push your child to try an activity that they are not ready for. Allow them to control the pace and encourage and support them to learn to make safe choices within their ‘risky’ explorations.

An exercise you can practice is noticing and managing your own anxiety responses at the playground with your child…..  

If your child is a climber and risky play explorer (like mine!) you can allow yourself to be physically close enough to catch them if they were to fall but give them space to explore.  If you are feeling very anxious instead of telling them to stop their exploring (because you feel anxious) why not try doing a check-in and asking your child “Do you have a plan to get down from there safely?” The question helps switch on their thinking/problem-solving brain so they are forced to look for a solution. Or you could try, “Did you need help getting down from there or do you have a plan?” (you are letting them know you are available to assist if needed but giving space for your child to claim the victory and build positive self-confidence.

We need to trust our children more – Let them lead their play and create childhood memories full of laughter, adventure, and a little bit of healthy risk to help them build healthy brains!