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As safe as necessary: Paediatricians say ‘risky play’ can enhance children’s health and wellbeing

Jan 25, 2024

OTTAWA – Free play is essential for the physical, mental, and social development of children, but opportunities for unstructured outdoor play have declined in recent years – in part due to a focus on making playtime as safe as possible. New recommendations from the Canadian Paediatric Society emphasize the importance of unstructured outdoor play and, in particular, “risky play” for children’s health and wellbeing.

“Children should be kept as safe as necessary during play, not as safe as possible,” said Dr. Emilie Beaulieu, author of the CPS guidance document and a paediatrician in Quebec City.

Risky play can improve physical, mental, and social health, and helps prevent or manage health conditions like obesity, anxiety, and behavioral issues. During risky play, children learn to recognize and evaluate challenges, which will in turn help them develop confidence in their decisions and abilities. Risky play can also help children with disabilities develop autonomy and reduce social exclusion.

Risky play can look different for each child – based on their individual skills, abilities, and confidence – and is defined as any thrilling and exciting free play that involves uncertain outcomes and the possibility of physical injury. Common elements of risky play include:

  • Playing at height;
  • playing at speed;
  • play involving impacts;
  • supervised activities involving an axe, saw, knife, hammer, or ropes (e.g., building a den or whittling);
  • proximity to elements like water and fire;
  • and the risk of getting lost (exploring play spaces, neighbourhoods, or woods without adult supervision, or in the case of young children, with limited supervision (e.g., hiding behind bushes).

While adults may worry about the potential for injury with this type of play, Dr. Beaulieu says the benefits outweigh the risks.

“Keeping our children active and mentally healthy is so important,” she noted. “Based on the research, we know that risky play is very helpful for physical health: Kids are more active and improve their motor skills. It is also beneficial for mental health, including better self-esteem and better friendships and positive interactions with their peers.”

Risky play does not involve ignoring safety measures, leaving children unsupervised in hazardous areas, or pushing children to take risks outside their comfort levels. Adults should continue to be aware of hazards, where the potential for harm is greater than the child’s capacity to recognize and manage the risk. And adults should always be ready to intervene if a child’s play becomes dangerous to themselves or others.

“Restrictive rules about play at home, daycare or school have impacted public health. Safety is important, but there needs to be a more balanced approach when it comes to precaution,” said Dr. Beaulieu.




Last updated: Jan 24, 2024

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