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Paediatricians encourage parents to allow children to play outside and take risks

The Canadian Paediatric Society recently released new recommendations urging parents to permit their children to engage in outdoor play, even when it involves an element of risk, emphasizing its significance in children’s development. Paediatricians assert that unstructured play is indispensable for the holistic development of children encompassing physical, mental, and social facets. Over the recent years, the opportunities for children to partake in outdoor free play, especially those considered risky, have dwindled. This trend is partly attributed to an overemphasis on safety measures aimed at eliminating all play-related injuries, rather than distinguishing between minor accidents and severe or life-threatening incidents.

Paediatricians precisely define ‘Risky Play’ as exhilarating and captivating forms of unstructured play characterized by the unpredictability of outcomes and the potential for physical harm. Such activities may encompass playing at heights, engaging in high-speed activities, handling tools, or interacting with elements that carry inherent risks, such as fire and water. Advocates of risky play emphasize the distinction between ‘risk’ and ‘hazard,’ and they endeavor to reframe perceived risk as an opportunity for situational assessment and personal growth. The medical community is encouraging parents to regard outdoor risky play to mitigate and address prevalent health issues among children, including obesity, anxiety, and behavioral challenges.

A comprehensive literature review conducted in March 2022 unveiled substantial evidence supporting the favorable effects of risky play on children’s physical, mental, and socio-emotional development. Systematic reviews focusing on the influence of nature and outdoor play on children’s well-being have underscored positive associations with increased physical activity, enhanced overall wellness, and reduced perceived stress levels. Risky play significantly contributes to the cultivation of physical literacy, fostering cognitive, affective, and physical competencies that are pivotal for sustaining lifelong engagement in physical activities.

The introduction of plant life and natural or unstructured elements into play environments, such as logs, barrels, and tires, has been correlated with heightened skin bacterial diversity and modifications in children’s gut microbiota, consequently modulating their immune system responses. Risky play additionally encourages children to identify and challenge their limits, fostering socio-emotional skills and a profound sense of belonging within a group. Participation in risky play facilitates the enhancement of communication, cooperation, and compromise abilities, particularly when children have the opportunity to assess and extend their boundaries.

Balancing the imperative of child safety with the provision of opportunities for beneficial risky play is a challenge for parents, caregivers, and policymakers alike. Responsible adults are tasked with the responsibility of creating secure spaces and nurturing emotionally supportive environments that permit spontaneous risky play. This entails adopting less restrictive supervision, dedicating time for unstructured play, and endorsing the utilization of natural, unstructured materials. Effective communication regarding risk-taking plays an integral role in this paradigm shift. Traditional cautions such as ‘Be careful’ may inadvertently convey fear, potentially undermining a child’s self-assurance. Experts advocate for parents to pause and attentively observe their children’s play before intervening, and suggest employing the following phrases when engaging with children during play:

● Do you feel … stable on that log of wood / the heat of that fire?

● Do you see … your friends nearby / how high you are?

● Notice how … these rocks are slippery / sharp this tool is.

● Are you feeling … scared / excited / safe?

● What’s your plan … if you jump on that boulder / dig that hole?

● How will you … get down / go up / get across?

The Canadian Paediatric Society (CPS) supports the idea that risky play provides a holistic range of benefits, encompassing physical, mental, and social-emotional aspects of children’s well-being.