KIDS NEED MORE “RISKY PLAY” SAYS CANADIAN PEDIATRICS SOCIETY!
Kids need to climb trees, jump off things, and ride their bikes fast. Says who? Says the Canadian Paediatric Society (CPS), that’s who. They may spell “pediatric” funny, but they get serious props from us for the big report they released today: “Healthy Childhood Development Through Outdoor Risky Play.”
If that sounds like a giant leap, you’re right. Mariana Brussoni, a developmental psychologist at the University of British Columbia, has been championing risky play for more than a decade. In 2015, she and a blue ribbon commission declared risky play crucial for kids. While some doctors from the CPS were on that commission, Brussoni says, the Society was never quite ready to endorse the declaration.
Risky Play is Preventative Medicine.
Faced with soaring rates of childhood anxiety, depression, obesity, and even myopia, the Society came to realize that “letting kids go out and play could be a way to deal with a lot of these challenging issues,” Brussoni says.
That’s because the doctors came to recognize two truths:
1 – Children are hard-wired to play because it is developmental gold. It teaches them how to take action, make friends, and solve problems.
2 – Replacing rollicking, regular old kid-led play with structured, supervised, adult-led play was a colossal mistake. It deprived children of a million opportunities to exercise their autonomy. And in terms of physical injuries? Irony alert ahead.
Risky Play Makes Kids Brave.
When kids play without adult intervention, it increases their social-emotional skills, the report found. What’s more: It can “significantly reduce children’s risk for elevated anxiety.”
Play does that in a rather obvious way, says Let Grow co-founder Peter Gray, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Boston College. “From an evolutionary standpoint, why do children want to play in a risky way? Because this is how they develop a little courage,” Gray says. “They deliberately put themselves into situations where they’re feeling fear so that, unconsciously, they can have a sense of control over it: ‘I can feel this fear and survive it.’ So when they face a real emergency, they are slightly less likely to panic. They are also less fearful because they know, ‘Something can happen and I can manage it.’”
The Canadian report recommends pediatricians start promoting risky play as preventative medicine for mental health.
Risky Play is Less Dangerous Than Organized Sports.
But what about the physical danger risky play involves? How can doctors – and parents, and schools – ignore that?
By looking at statistics, says Brussoni.
“From 2007 to 2022, there were two deaths from falls on the playground, and 480 deaths from motor vehicle crashes,” she says. Playing at the park seems safer than being driven there. Brussoni adds that in those same years there were zero deaths from falls from trees.
Where does the real playtime danger lie? “The research has established that children are less likely to be injured while engaging in unstructured activities than when playing an organized sport,” according to the report.
Risky Play Was Mistakenly Maligned.
Whoa! Sports are more dangerous than goof-around play? It’s starting to sound like the real risk in “risky play” is that our culture has been so busy trying to kill it. Think of signs like this one in suburban DC that cautions: “Adult supervision required. Do not climb on slides. No jumping from swings.” And, on the monkey bars, “Do not skip rings or rungs.”
Wrong! Creativity, boldness, and confidence are exactly what kids need — and get from, among other things, skipping rings and rungs!
So how can we re-normalize the free play suddenly so prized?
Brussoni tells parents to start with an “underwhelming” experiment. “Let them out into the backyard while you’re watching for a few minutes.” The next day, sit in the kitchen and don’t watch. You and your kids will get used to time apart. Take it from there.
Another way is to ask your kids’ school to start a Let Grow Play Club. That’s when the school stays open for mixed-age free play. When it does, suddenly there’s a swarm of kids having exactly the kind of fun the pediatric society recommends. Some may organize a football game. Some draw with chalk. Some run around and make up new games. An adult is there, but like a lifeguard. They don’t organize the games or solve the spats. A Play Club is the easiest way to get a lot of kids playing (and off their phones) before or after school — and our implementation guide is FREE! Here it is!
Risky Play Needs a Better Name.
The Canadian Paediatrics Society says it issued its full-throated endorsement of risky play partly in response to the “restrictive safety programs and measures that have become more broadly implemented – and sometimes mandated – in child care settings, schools, and playgrounds in recent years.”
By labeling normal childhood play “risky,” the risk-mitigators got it wrong. They didn’t think about trade-offs, or why kids are so driven to run and jump and hide and seek. And they didn’t think what might happen to kids deprived of this childhood staple.
But now, if even cautious Canada is saying safety culture has swung too far? It’s time to jump off the swing.