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Why Risky Play Is Beneficial for Kids

Rules and playgrounds designed for safety might actually be less healthy

It’s a steamy summer morning. I’ve got to get my 8-year-old twins out of the house, so we slather on the sunscreen and head to our favorite park. About five minutes in, my son is climbing up the slide.

“Brylon! Get down, please!” I shout. He continues to ascend—in sandals nonetheless. I hear squealing to my left and see that my daughter is clinging to the top bar of the swings.

“Hi, Momma!” she giggles as she sways back and forth. I’m a nervous wreck, mentally listing all the sprains, splinters and burns that are bound to happen because they’re playing the “wrong” way.

Personally, I love the rubber surfacing and plastic-coated bars that are replacing wood chips and metal at North Texas playgrounds; however, these safety-minded changes are in sharp contrast to “adventure playgrounds” appearing worldwide. (The closest one is in Houston.) There, children are given sand piles, zip lines, old electronics, busted tires and various tools with little to no instruction.

Antoinette Martinez, a registered play therapist at Nourish Play Therapy in Dallas who also has a master’s degree in education, praises this type of “free-range play.”

“Play is a child’s language, and toys and materials are their words,” she explains. “When we give them structured play it’s almost like we’re just giving them a script.”

In 2017, a playground research and design nonprofit in Pennsylvania published a study comparing British and American playgrounds. The British playgrounds included attractions considered to be more hazardous, but surprisingly, the injury rates there were lower. That’s likely because attempting to reduce risk through rules and standard play structures often leads to boredom, so kids begin to test their limits by misusing the equipment.

So why isn’t North Texas producing less-structured playgrounds? Habit, Martinez says.

“When we see a standard play structure, it looks fun,” she says. “And kids do have fun there … it’s just short-lived.”

“Play is a child’s language, and toys and materials are their words,” she explains. “When we give them structured play it’s almost like we’re just giving them a script.” 
Antoinette Martinez

Audrey Rowland offers professional development and consulting services for early childhood educators. At Play Studio, which she opened last year in Fort Worth, you’ll find an indoor-outdoor space that encourages unstructured play—kids use tools such as hammers and screwdrivers and engage in clay work, weaving and science experiments involving natural elements. Rowland agrees with Martinez that while kids enjoy the standard swing-and-slide playground, it’s a short-term interest.

“As a child develops, the brain and the body are working together to make sense of the world,” she says. “The brain is compelling the body to figure things out. That’s why children feel compelled to go up the slides or jump off the swings. They have figured out what they are supposed to do with this stationary apparatus, but then the brain starts wondering what else it can do.”

Rowland advises parents to assess risk versus hazard. A hazard is a danger that your child might not recognize; a risk is the possibility of an outcome that your child can manage by making choices.

“It is absolutely our job as adults to prevent hazard, but we need to embrace perceived risk,” Rowland says, explaining that it’s healthy for children to explore risks in order to develop decision-making skills and cope with fears.

Both Rowland and Martinez are seeing signs of local parents adopting atypical play, but until there are more public options in our area, here’s how to encourage it in your own environment:

Provide the Space 

Martinez believes that adventure playgrounds may be slow to spread for fear of legal problems. So she suggests finding open space where your child can run around freely, such as Samuell Farm in Mesquite or Trinity Park in Fort Worth. The fewer distractions your child has, the more they will use their environment to keep them entertained—sand, water and other raw materials can be just as beneficial as a strategically constructed play facility.

Be Patient 

“What I hear a lot from parents when they’re trying to incorporate unstructured play is that their children get bored quickly,” says Rowland. “The children should get bored; that’s part of the process.”

Resist the urge to offer suggestions. Allowing kids to sit in their boredom will inevitably prompt creativity—it just may take awhile.

“This type of play has been stifled for so long that it takes some time to emerge,” she says. “Set up a base of materials. Ask your child questions to support their own ideas. Just be patient through their boredom and your fears.”

She also urges parents to refrain from using the blanket phrase “be careful” without a particular goal. “If there is no specific instruction, then all they’re doing is confirming that there is an unknown fear or hazard present,” she explains.

Trust the Process 

“Everyone in the history of the world has figured out how to use a hammer,” Rowland says. “You don’t need to teach your child what to do with it. Sit back and trust the process.”

Martinez stresses that rigid helicopter parenting can lead to deficits in the development of a child’s psyche and gross motor skills.

“If parents overly police their kids during risky play opportunities, that feeling of anxiety is absorbed by the child,” she says. “It’s important to just sit back and observe your child through the process of free play. It shows that you are listening to them.”