The Health And Social Benefits Of Risky Play

sharma-obesity-active-kidsThe recent report card on physical activity released by Participaction strongly recommends (unsupervised) free play as a means to increase physical activity in kids.

But free play has far greater benefits on children’s development than just physical fitness, especially when there is an element of risk involved.

That is the conclusion of a paper by Marianna Brussoni and colleagues, published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

For their paper, risky play was defined as play that involves an element of danger, including the possibility of physical injury.  Such types of play include play at height, speed, near dangerous elements (e.g., water, fire), with dangerous tools, rough and tumble play (e.g., play fighting), and where there is the potential for disappearing or getting lost.

This systematic review of 21 relevant research studies shows that risky outdoor play not only improves physical health (despite the inherent risk of injuries and even death), but also social health and behaviours, risk for injuries, and reduced aggression.

Specifically, studies have shown improvements in risk detection and competence, increased self-esteem and decreased conflict sensitivity and conflict resolution, better developed motor skills, enhanced social behaviour, greater independence, improved risk management strategies, and the ability to negotiate decisions about substance use, relationships and sexual behaviour during adolescence.

Obviously, risky behaviour is risky – according to the researchers,

“In Canada, approximately 2,500 children age 14 and under are hospitalized annually as a result of playground falls (play at height)—81% are for fractures.”

Nevertheless, weighing all of the available evidence, the researchers came to the following conclusions:

“Although these findings are based on ‘very low’ to ‘moderate’ quality evidence, the evidence suggests overall positive effects of risky outdoor play on a variety of health indicators and behaviours in children aged 3-12 years. Specifically, play where children can disappear/get lost and risky play supportive environments were positively associated with physical activity and social health, and negatively associated with sedentary behaviour.

Play at height was not related to fracture frequency and severity. Engaging in rough and tumble play did not increase aggression, and was associated with increased social competence for boys and popular children, however results were mixed for other children.

There was also an indication that risky play supportive environments promoted increased play time, social interactions, creativity and resilience.

These positive results reflect the importance supporting children’s risky outdoor play opportunities as a means of promoting children’s health and active lifestyles.”

Clearly, these finding go against the popular policies that focus on harm reduction and making kids’ play environments as safe as possible.

Perhaps these policies are doing more harm than good – as always, you never know where the unintended consequences of well-meant public policies rear their ugly head.

Edmonton, AB