Let me begin by admitting that I was once "that mom" who used to sanitize every square inch of the airplane seat before my son was allowed near it. I am sure at some point I was also the mom walking two steps behind my son at the playground, saying "be careful!" every time his feet left the floor. My son also sat rear-facing in his car-seat until the age of three. Being responsible for another human beings life in today's world can bring out the worst of fears in anyone.
In a lot of ways, though, I've always been less cautious than most moms. And by less cautious, I mean, I let my kids try things most moms wouldn't. This is strongly tied to my line of work. Day in and day out, I watch as kids motor plan their next daring move. I watch kids hang themselves upside down from trapeze bars regularly. I watch very clumsy children navigate rock walls and obstacle courses. I let kids jump from high places into crash pits, jump wildly on trampolines, place themselves in strange positions on swings and follow their request to "go really really fast!" It's just what I do, letting clumsy kids take risks for the sake of motor learning and sensory integration.
When my son was in his early toddler years, I felt strongly that it was important for him to learn motor skills on his own terms. I didn't necessarily want him to climb up on top of the kitchen bar stools like a little monkey but I figured he would inevitably do it again. He might as well realize how unstable the stools were for one, and more importantly, how to get himself back down safely. At the playground, I never said "no" when he tried to climb "up the slide" when this was one of my favorite therapeutic activities I used in the clinic to build upper extremity strength and stability.
My background as a pediatric occupational therapist helped shape my theory that "safety first" doesn't actually achieve improved safety awareness. Thankfully, emerging research supports this theory, suggesting that imposing too many restrictions on children’s outdoor risky play hinders their development. (2)
The problem isn't really you. The problem is that our fear-emphasizing culture has turned present day parents into worry-filled helicopter parents, hovering over their child's every move. The constant access to information at our fingertips is overwhelming and frightening. The internet has fueled a culture that tends to believe the worst-case scenario in every situation. To make matters worse, our safety obsessed and litigious American society has transformed school playgrounds into places of abundant rules where free play isn't what it used to be.
Too many outside influences have rendered many parents today unable to trust in their internal parental instincts, and more importantly their own children. After all, at the heart of all children, is an innate need to play, explore, push boundaries, take risks and learn about the world through trial and error.
Well friends, today I invite you to stop worrying. I invite you to just let you're children be. Let them be curious, take risks, and give the opportunity to make many mistakes. I invite you to let them be in control of their own definition of play.
Let me explain why.
Taking Risks Supports Healthy Psychological Development:
Children innately crave to push the envelope when it comes to their own fears and physical abilities. The adventurer inside of them seeks to know the boundaries and limitations of their own abilities. This risk seeking behavior is normal. And when unhindered by parental regulation, happens to correlate with healthy childhood psychosis. In her article entitled The Overprotected Kid, Hanna Rosin states "If children never go through the process of exposing themselves to new risks, their fear can turn into a phobia. (6)
A research study of Australian children ages 4 - 5 1/2 years old, collected observational and interview data on 38 children. The study indicated that when provided with a choice 74% of participants preferred to play on the more challenging playground equipment. (7)
Animal studies have suggested that restricting play opportunities during critical development windows can lead to social disturbances. (4) Further animal studies have concluded that plentiful free play opportunities facilitated maturation of the frontal lobe and thus executive functioning. (5) Executive functioning skills are what regulate impulse control and emotional regulation, which are problem areas for those diagnosed with ADHD.
A study by Ellen Sandester, a professor of Early Education at Queen Maud University College in Trondheim, observed and interviewed children on playgrounds in Norway. (8) Her findings revealed that all children had a strong interest in seeking out and engaging in various forms of risky play (including high speeds, high heights, etc).
Another study by Sandester on the same topic concludes, "Our fear of children being harmed by mostly harmless injuries may result in more fearful children and increased levels of psychopathology." (9) Sadly, I feel that this scenario has already become our present day reality. Childhood depression, ADHD, anxiety and sensory processing deficits are on the rise more than ever, all while unrestricted play is being severely restricted.
Falls Build Protective Responses:
Protective Extension is a developmental reflex (meaning unconscious, controlled at the brainstem level) that essentially protects the body by projecting the arms forward when a loss of balance occurs. Most people will recognize this reflex by recalling a time when they used their outstretched arms to protect or catch themselves during a fall. This protective response typically emerges and is refined in the first year of life. The more risky adventures, falls and balance challenges that a child faces during this first year of life and beyond will only sharpen these protective responses.
No matter how much you hover, you won't be able to prevent your child from having a few bad falls in their lifetime. What could be better to protect them from a head injury than having a heightened protective response? So let them climb until their hearts are content!
Taking Risks Fosters Safety Awareness and Improves Body Awareness:
Safety Awareness is a goal for many children on my typical caseload. With our societies safety obsession, it is no wonder that so many children are severely lacking in this area. Constant parental supervision doesn't build safety awareness skills, it makes children oblivious to harmful consequences. Allowing our children the opportunity to follow their innate drive to test their physical boundaries gives them the opportunity to access the risk themselves.
Children lacking safety awareness are the ones who would climb to the top of the jungle gym and free fall it down to the ground. They have no idea of what physical dangers lie beyond, because they have never been allowed the opportunity to test reasonable boundaries (on a smaller scale) due to heightened parental fears.
Proprioception plays a big role when discussing safety awareness in children. Proprioception means awareness of the body in space. It is a sense a child develops when engaged in regular intervals of free, unstructured gross motor play. As strange as it may sound, doing crazy wild things like rolling down grassy hills, jumping on trampolines or from a high place actually improve a child's body awareness in space. This type of play stimulates the priorioceptors (sensory neurons that lie within the inner ear). Many children today, especially those who have been labeled as developmentally delayed, have poor proprioception. Lack of opportunities for regular gross-motor, outdoor, risky play is a likely culprit in terms of causation for so many children lacking basic body awareness.
Children Learn Best Through Trial & Error:
Contrary to the structure of most American classrooms, in my experience, children do not learn best through verbal instructions (auditory). Rather, they learn best by imitating others and by trial and error.
When learning how to put beads onto a string, for example, a child will watch someone perform the task first. Then, they will attempt and fail several times before finally achieving the goal of threading the string through the hole.
The same learning process plays out with gross motor skills such as climbing, running, jumping, etc. Gross motor skills are refined by repeated failed attempts, not by someone holding their hand every step of the way. Think of an infant learning to walk. A novice walker around the age of 12-14 months typically falls 17.4 times/hour! (10) The falling, the catching oneself and the regaining of balance all contribute to the strengthening of the core and balance system for improved coordinating during walking.
Motor Planning & Balance Skills Develop During Risky Adventures
Children today are lacking skilled motor planning, balance and core strength. I have observed these deficits not just in the clinic but on a grander scale, out in my own community. It's no secret that children are less active today than they once were. Availability and over-usage of iPads, decline in unstructured play and recess at school, inactive lifestyles, parental fears, "safety" changes to playground equipment and video game addiction are just a few contributing factors. The rise in the amount of parents seeking therapy for their children is on the rise too. Developmental Delay is a term I see on a day to day basis. According to the CDC, recent surveys show about one in six, or about 15%, of children aged 3 through 17 years have one or more developmental disabilities
Children are simply missing out on rich sensory experiences and challenging motor endevours needed to develop healthy and age-appropriate balance skills, strength, motor planning and body awareness due to all of the factors listed above.
This photo of a playground from the 1990's in Dallas Texas blew my mind. As a therapist, looking at this photo makes me feel a lot of different emotions. For obvious starters, it seems quite incomprehensible that this was legal. Secondly, I cannot even fathom the children of today being able to navigate the equipment without severely injuring themselves due to lack of strength, balance, body awareness and motor planning skills. Thirdly, it really just makes me sad, because I feel like the children in this photo are genuinely enjoying free-unrestricted play in all of its glory and mayhem.
I am not supporting or proposing we begin implementing playground equipment like this one seen in this photo. I am, however, proposing and strongly hoping for change. There is a way to advocate for free and challenging play opportunities while still removing obvious safety hazards and working to prevent injury.
The philosophy of the Adventure Playground Movement supports this concept and is becoming a solution to the problem. I am hopeful someday this movement will be more widespread in the U.S. The goal of an Adventure Playground is to offer more imaginative and exciting play opportunities for children. These playgrounds offer opportunities for children to evaluate and access risk. Instead of the traditional metal swings, slides and roundabouts, these playgrounds typically consist of non-traditional play items such as old buses, tires, wooden logs, old boats, ropes courses, etc. They are places for kids to be kids and to do what they do best, play.
Ashley Thurn, MS,OTR/L
- Little, H.; Eager, D. Risk, challenge and safety: Implications for play quality and playground design. Eur. Early Child Educ. Res. J. 2010, 18, 497–513.
- Brussoni, M.; Olsen, L.; Pike, I.; Sleet, D. Risky Play & Children's Safety: Balancing Priorities for Optimal Childhood Development. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2012 Sep; 9(9): 3134–3148. <NCBI>
- Hol T., Van den Berg C.L., Van Ree J.M., Spruijt B.M. Isolation during the play period in infancy decreases adult social interactions in rats. Behav. Brain Res. 1999;100:91–97. doi: 10.1016/S0166-4328(98)00116-8.
- Panksepp J. Can play diminish ADHD and facilitate the construction of the social brain? J. Can. Acad. Child Adolesc. Psychiatry. 2007;16:57–66.
- Rosin, Hannah. The Overprotected Kid. The Atlantic. April 2014. <The Atlantic>
- Sandseter, Ellen Beate Hansen. (2007). Risky play among four- and five year old children in preschool. <https://www.researchgate.net/publication/236986863_Risky_play_among_four-_and_five_year_old_children_in_preschool>
- Sandseter, E. B. H. (2009). Affordances for risky play in preschool - the importance of features in the play environment. Early Childhood Education Journal, 36, 439-446. <ResearchGate>
Ellen Beate Hansen Sandseter. Categorizing Risky Play - How can we identify risk taking in children's play? European Early Childhood Education Research Journal Vol. 15 , Iss. 2,2007. <http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/13502930701321733>
Adolph KE, Cole WG, Komati M, et al. How Do You Learn to Walk? Thousands of Steps and Dozens of Falls Per Day. Psychological science. 2012;23(11):1387-1394. doi:10.1177/0956797612446346.