Kids love climbing too high, running too fast, and biking off poorly constructed driveway ramps. When they’re very young, they climb chairs. When they get a bit older, they play with fire. Though terrified parents may struggle to accept it, none of this is a bad thing. Risky play helps children develop essential physical abilities and skills while curbing fears. In many forms, it’s not only developmentally appropriate but also, according to researchers, a critical way that kids learn to be resilient.
“We may observe an increased neuroticism or psychopathology in society if children are hindered from partaking in age adequate risky play,” wrote Ellen Sandseter, an expert on play at Queen Maud University College of Early Childhood Education in Trondheim, Norway, recently wrote in Evolutionary Psychology.
According to Sandseter and a large body or developmental and evolutionary research, fear is not something children develop as a result of seeing scary things. Fear comes from growing up and becoming aware of danger in general. What keeps kids from developing crippling fears is learning early on that some risks can be thrilling and fun — even if those risks freak out mom and dad.
Sandseter claims that there are six categories of risky play that ultimately prove to be healthy for kids.
Climbing Too High
Kids climb trees, playground equipment, and pretty much everything but the corporate ladder for evolutionary reasons. Suburban kids, children raised in hunter-gatherer cultures, which social science researchers use as something close to a control group, young primates, and even juvenile birds all take part in what researchers refer to as “locomotor play.” This helps children develop qualities like muscle strength and endurance, as well as the ability to distinguish depth, shape, form, size, movement, and other perceptual and spatial orientation abilities. While it can be scary for parents to watch, data indicates that kids are naturally good at knowing their limits if they’re allowed to test them a little. Bigger problems surface when they cannot take some of these chances and either don’t learn appropriate limits or develop a fear of heights later in life.
Running Too Fast
Running, swinging, and generally moving at top speeds is similar to playing at climbing in that it helps kids develop perceptual awareness and spatial orientation. Since swinging from high places is a part of playing at top speeds, this type of risky play has similar antiphobic effects; kids who play at great high speed are might also be less afraid of heights. The main difference is that researchers have not observed this form of play in other animals and are not entirely sure where it comes from. “High speed was not a typical part of our hominin ancestors’ ecology. There are therefore no obvious hominin adaptations for high speed,” Sandseter writes. “Thus it seems more likely to be more archaic or due to by-products of perceptual systems.”
Playing Too Rough
Rough and tumble play helps children develop physical strength, endurance, and control, but there are not any clear antiphobic effects. Roughhousing has been found to be especially important for boys to teach them how to bond with their peers and learn about status and competition. Still rough and tumble play teaches both boy and girls how to manage aggression, which is vital in adulthood. Rough and tumble play is fun, but that fun can get intense pretty quickly and kids can get easily pissed. But if they don’t learn to control the impulse and escalate to actual fighting, children figure out quickly that the consequence of that is that they can’t play anymore. If they want to keep having fun, they have to learn how to cool down once they start to see red. This raises an important question: How much did your boss roughhouse as a child?
Straying Too Far
There’s little question that kids love to wander off, explore, and get lost, but from an evolutionary perspective, there’s some debate as to whether or not this began as play or as an instinct that dovetails with the need to gather food. When this behavior is displayed in other mammals, wandering away from the nest presents real risks, while also reducing separation anxiety later in life. Since children in modern society tend to experiment with separation in more controlled ways, it’s reasonable to conclude that this has become a form of play.
Investigating Too Thoroughly
Like all other categories of dangerous play, parents tend to see playing with knives, matches, and ropes as “dangerous” when kids simply see it as a fun Saturday. Playing with dangerous tools didn’t see this as dangerous until a few generations ago, and for good reason: Scientists suspect this form of play is adaptive and meant to lead to skill acquisition. Kids want to learn how to use things that will keep them alive and well. Boys are more likely to use objects as tools, whereas girls use object play more for organizing and arranging, which may reflect gender differences from pressures to hunt versus gather. Still, if you give any kid a hammer, they’ll figure out how to drop it.
Being Too Reckless
Why do kids stand so close to the edge? Researchers are not entirely sure. But this form of risky play likely poses the most danger because children tend to get distracted. However, there’s good news: Sandseter suspects that kids are getting better at it generation after generation. Good luck letting them do it anyways.