Risky Play – Notes from Pathways Connect Kelowna February Gathering

Pathways Connect Kelowna is a simple gathering of mamas focused on raising awareness in our own parenting journeys in a conscious, supportive community.  We meet at AltaVie on the last Tuesday of each month from 5:30pm-6:30pm.


In February, our starter topic was Risky Play, based on an article written by Dr Peter Gray PhD in Issue 49 of Pathways to Family Wellness magazine.  We ended up having a group of mamas that were either pregnant and had very young infants, so it was more of a theoretical conversation based around philosophy development. It was likely more of me monologueing than it needed to be, but that is because this is a topic that my husband and I are actually quite passionate about.

What is Risky Play?

Risky Play is exactly that: Play that involves some type of inherent risk, most identifiable risk of physical harm.  It challenges physical skill or capacity, it pushes limits, and it has the potential to hurt or harm.

There are actually 6 Categories of Risky Play.

  1. Great Heights
  2. Rapid Speeds
  3. Dangerous Tools
  4. Dangerous Elements
  5. Rough-and-Tumble
  6. Disappearing/Getting Lost

It’s easy to think of examples of all these types of play in children. It is also universal that we see common types of play in all mammals.  Young and adolescent mammals play rough.  They chase and fight and pounce. They climb and jump and swing.  They gradually venture further and further from their mothers.  These ubiquitous mammalian behaviours beg the question as to their developmental significance. So, let’s explore!

On the surface level, we can observe that play is an important phase in learning physical skills that will be crucial for adult success. Hunting, fighting, climbing, fleeing.  But as modern human beings, these activities are not commonly necessary for our survival.  So does risky play still matter or is it a remnant of a primitive state?

Sequoia (not-quite-1) during a particularly wet camping trip - with fire pit, forest, and lake all readily accessible.  Good fun!
Sequoia (not-quite-1) during a particularly wet camping trip - with fire pit, forest, and lake all readily accessible. Good fun!

In fancy animal studies where they deprive rats or monkeys of risky play but still involve them in all other social experiences, the unfortunate study group animals grow up emotionally crippled.  They overreact with fear, fail to adapt, and do not explore their surroundings.  In social interactions, they alternate between freezing in fear and lashing out with inappropriate aggression.  This has led to the development of the Emotional Regulation Theory of Play. This theory holds that the major function of play is to teach young mammals not just the physical skills required as adults, but also how to regulate negative emotions like fear and anger.  During risky play, they are able to manage the quantity of fear they are exposed to and practice adaptive behavior. When they experience anger incidentally, they must overcome it for the fun to continue; if they lash out, their playmate will abandon them (or a bigger playmate may “put them in their place”).  They are able to encounter and overcome real-life fear and anger without succumbing to negative emotions in a relatively low-consequence situation.


In humans, this all holds true as well, but due to our complex social-emotional development and integration, the stakes are even higher. Psychologists feel this leads to an increase in neuroticism and psychopathology if children are hindered from partaking in age-adequate risky play.  And they have the stats to back those statements. In the last 60 years, sociologists have documented a stark decline in opportunity for free play without adults control (arguably for good reasons, but not without consequence).  Psychologists have recorded a dramatic increase in a surfeit of mental and emotional disorders.  In children, there has been a 5- to 8-times increase in anxiety and depression.  Even in my small bubble of awareness, I can attest to a very scary trend in the difficulty that children are having in fear and anger management.  The observed animal response of “fear-freeze” or “aggressive lash out” is all too familiar.


This article highlights the role that risky play has in adaptive social and emotional development.  From other sources and observations, we can expand that influence even further.  Developing the experience and the judgement necessary to appropriately manage physical risk is important in and of itself, and it will spill over into managing risk in other realms as well, such as social and financial.  In all these realms, children are learning not just to avoid all potentially risky situations, nor are they likely to dive head first into the unknown without a filter.  A lack of this important executive functioning skill is actually a critical identifier in AD/HD and one of the reasons we see an increased incidence of car accidents, physical injury, and substance abuse in children and young adults with the diagnosis.


Another key benefit of risky play is the role that physical movement has in neurological development.  Exploring our surroundings is one of the primary ways that our nervous system lays down its framework during our early years.  We must go through predictable motor patterns as a precursor to higher learning and executive function. (Again, executive function deficits are another major issue plaguing our children and another primary dysfunction seen in AD/HD and similar disorders.)  Movement through space is required for the development the vestibular system (starting in utero), the visual processing systems, proprioception and motor control, as well as our concept of spatial awareness.  Specific movement patterns (like crossing the midline and crawling) are critical in the development of a robust corpus callosum, which is the interconnection between the two hemispheres of the brain and is the center of the limbic system (which just so happens to be the seat of emotional regulation… are you connecting the dots yet?).


OK, there is all my hard selling on the importance of risky play.  Now let’s get real. Risky play is… well… risky!  There is inherent danger involved in these activities. So how do we, as responsible parents, ensure our beloved children are gifted the benefits of risky play while still being able to sleep at night and keeping our children alive? Where is the balance between protecting children from real, physical danger and equipping our children with emotional resiliency and healthy executive functioning to support them throughout their lives?


What stands in our way?  The obstacles.

If we are going to figure out how to ameliorate the general lack of free play, we should first examine why we are not doing it automatically in the first place.  Here are the barriers we can up with:

  • Parents who allow such play are potentially perceived as irresponsible or accused of negligence
  • Social norms
  • Lack of physical space and exposure to an outdoor environment
  • Risk of actual physical harm
  • Our own fear and anxiety
  • Our desire to offer the best opportunities in the form of organized activity with take up the majority of our scheduled time
  • A lack of trust in our children and their inherent capacity


Children generally have a better gauge of their capacity than adults do.  Without adult pressure or praise, kids will usually limit themselves more safely.  There is actually a higher risk of injury in organized sport than there is in free play, both acute and chronic.  Acute injuries are more common due to the presence of parental pressures influencing decision making.  Chronic injuries are more common due to movement specializations within organized sport. (Think of the classic case of Little League Shoulder from kids repeatedly going through the same throwing motion.)  In free play, there is more variety of movement patterns and kids tend to stop or change it up if one area hurts or fatigues.


Drive toward and tolerance of Risky Play is different for every kid.  What may be thrilling for one may be traumatic for another.  Consider the gym class rope climb.  For those who excel or have played with it on their own before, it can be great fun. For those who struggle or may not have been developmentally ready for the task, they may forever avoid similar experiences.


What about those with no filter?  They need help learning restraint.  This is better learned by jumping off something too high as a kid then when engaging in higher risk activities as they age.  Risky play is just as important for these kids as it helps teach them real boundaries and how to assess different circumstances.  I also believe this is an important area where adults can educate children in situation-specific risk management. Consider our young kids learning to ski; they eventually need to know what a tree-well is and what to do if they get stuck in one in order to be trusted to manage the terrain in their sport.


Opportunities:             How to do dangerous things with kids… safely!

Ben and I enjoy making YouTube videos for fun with this heading. But in all seriousness, I am not recommending we relinquish all the restraints with reckless abandon.  So where do we start? Especially if this is not the pattern that a child grew up with early on and you are navigating this terrain with an older child. Here are some of the strategies we came up with.


  • Gradually increase your supervision distance.
    • An infant is very slow in growing their progressive “safe radius” away from mom. Mimic that.
  • Facilitate play with other children, preferably of different ages.
    • Coming back to the continuum concept and conscious parenting from last month, this was a major takeaway. The children were not entirely unsupervised; the older kids were taking care of the younger ones, allowing them a safer environment to test their boundaries, without the full safety net of parental involvement.  This is part of their social-emotional development. Free play is not generally encouraged in isolation (at least not most of the time or at the start).
  • Talk to your child.
    • Especially if you are starting this later on or if you are deliberately expanding your child’s “leash”. I can remember my mom repeatedly reviewing our safety policy for exiting our forts whenever the snowplough was coming near before she kicked us out for the day. It’s still ingrained in my head every time I see a fort-worthy snow pile.
  • Ask your child.
    • One of our moms brought up a great discussion about turning the question back to the child when they ask if they can do something. “Can I jump off the coffee table?” “I don’t know. Can you?” That simple “Can you?” causes a child to pause and consider. You’ll be surprised how good they are at coming up with the right answer!
  • Wear the right equipment.
    • Helmets. Lifejackets. Etc.
  • Get involved!
    • Be their model. Ski with them (and wear your helmet). Swim with them. Climb trees. Swing on the monkey bars.  Not only will they learn by mimicking you, but it will create a more open relationship to dialogue and connect with your kids.

Way too long now. I told you this topic gets me revved up! What do you think?

  • Does risky play matter? (Emotionally, physically, socially, developmentally…)
  • What barriers do you have that hinder you from allowing your children the opportunity for risky play? Are they real or perceived?
  • Where is the line? How far away can they travel and for how long? When, if ever, do they need to check in? When do you watch and when do you not?
  • At what age do you allow certain activities or responsibilities, or does age matter at all? How do you gage?
  • When do you start?
  • How risky is too risky?
  • Are there requisite precursors to risky play? Time. Facilitated boredom. Natural spaces?

As an added note:  This is a topic best discussed openly with your parenting partner.  You can imagine the ensuing stress if caregivers are not on the same page on the mater. Safety first in your marriage.  😉

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