Take A Hike: The Case For Risky Outdoor Play

The Benefits of Risky Outdoor Play

I know I’m not the only parent at the park following her kid from structure to structure crying out “be careful” or  “don’t run up the slide”. Where are my other protective parents at?

It turns out that we need to resist our urges to yell stop, and at least sometimes refrain from the lessons about what could happen.

Risky Play As Healthy Play?

It might seem counterintuitive but engaging in risky behaviour is good for our children’s emotional, social, and physical health. A review of play research by the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health revealed that hyperparenting along with boring playgrounds has led to a decrease in rough-and-tumble play and an increase in sedentary children.

The journal refers to risky play as ” play at height, speed, near dangerous elements (e.g., water, fire), with dangerous tools, rough and tumble play, and where there is the potential for disappearing or getting lost”.¹ These types of activities are the kind my two boys are keen to try but like most mothers, I’m terrified of the injury potential for my children. My fear stems from a mama bear protectiveness since the article mentions that most childhood injuries are minor and are a natural part of being physically active.

Injury-prevention expert, Mariana Brussoni, notes that risky behaviour helps children develop negotiation skills, and awareness of their personal boundaries that wouldn’t otherwise occur with parental guidance.²

Allowing Free-Range Experiences

The “busy” everyday expectations of being a family and working, often mean children’s opportunities for risky outdoor play are being diminished.  Children move from the structured school day to structured afterschool enrichment activities.

When asked, about their favourite play memories children referred to being on a playground or in a supervised activity compared to their parents who remember free-experiences like riding their bikes in the neighbourhood, or playing hide-and-seek.³ I remember going to the trailer park each summer for most of my early childhood. All the kids would gather for hide-and-seek in the dusky field. The game ended when the streetlights came on and everyone scattered.

Encouraging outdoor play to explore natural materials is one way to provide healthy opportunities for risk-taking.

Last weekend, my heart dropped when John ran up the path, and disappeared into the trees with a boy he had met about ten minutes prior. They were taking the “long way” back to the cottage from the lake. I bit my tongue, took a deep breath, and waited for him to arrive. Later that night he confessed to me that his friend had been a little scared, but they held hands and figured out which way to go by listening to the adults talking.

It’s going to be a long summer, but this is a challenge I’m willing to take on. Will you join me?


1. What is the Relationship between Risky Outdoor Play and Health in Children?

²,³ Playing, with fire: How much risk should we expose our kids to?


  • Betsy (Eco-novice) says:

    Play has definitely changed. It’s hard to strike the right balance. I find my husband is better at allowing and encouraging risk but sometimes I feel the need to rein him in. It doesn’t help that I’m extremely risk averse myself. It helps that I have friends who are really hands off about this.

    • Sara Vartanian says:

      My husband is more free about play as well. He also plays with them in a rough and tumble way which is not natural for me. I’m working on being more of an explorer outdoors. It’s a balance to find what we can deal with, and what is good for them.

  • I am very much a free range parent. My kiddos have always been allowed to roam and explore and we just bought a home with a creek running through the yard. Fun times!

    • Sara Vartanian says:

      That sounds amazing, Tiffany. We just bought a place on a lake with some forest. It’s going to be a huge shift from living in a city of 4 million plus!

  • Lindsay says:

    I love this, I was allowed to run and play in the woods (and yes hurt myself) and it was very great at showing me the rewards and dangers of taking risks. I am not a parent but can understand how hard it would be to let your kids make mistakes. I’m sure it’s a balancing act!

    • Sara Vartanian says:

      I see the benefit of letting my boys “roam free” but it’s definitely a work in progress from a mama perspective. I loved exploring too!

  • Anna @Green Talk says:

    I am with you as a mother of four boys. I tend to be overprotective where my husband is like Betsy’s.

    • Sara Vartanian says:

      It’s tricky, isn’t Anna? They can’t help but climb a little higher, jump from that huge rock and so forth.