Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
A new literature review suggests that unsupervised play fosters resilient kids.
Kids’ play spaces are too sanitized and too safe. That’s the takeaway from a new literature review published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. The authors analyzed 18 studies on the benefits and consequences of unsupervised, exciting play for kids and teens ages 7 to 15.
Their conclusion: Missing out on “risky play” comes at a cost.
It’s important to note how the term “risk” functions here. No one is suggesting, for instance, that kids head out into the backyard and juggle knives. They’re not advocating for a culture of kiddie parkour. The authors write:
We use the word “risk” in the context of risky play to denote a situation whereby a child can recognize and evaluate a challenge and decide on a course of action.
What does that look like? “Risky” play can encompass behaviors that offer a jolt of adrenaline, whether it’s scaling a structure, swinging, or running amok in a way that’s a little rough-and-tumble. The authors distinguish between this type of play and play that’s flat-out reckless (or, for that matter, infrastructure that’s inherently dangerous—such as playground equipment that poses the risk of head entrapment or strangulation).
“Risky” play encourages kids to think critically, and appears to have a positive impact on child health. "We found that play environments where children could take risks promoted increased play time, social interactions, creativity and resilience," Mariana Brussoni, lead author of the study, and assistant professor in University of British Columbia's School of Population and Public Health and Department of Pediatrics, said in a press release.
The authors weigh the benefits against the risks that can be associated with high-octane play, such as bone fractures. (Falls send as many as 3 million kids to emergency rooms in the U.S. each year.) They conclude that “play at height was not related to fracture frequency and severity,” and that wild recreation does not appear to be correlated with other measures of aggression.
Study recommendations include designing more structures that allow kids to actively engage with the environment, such as through manipulating tools or climbing trees.
One example: the Land, an “adventure playground” in North Wales. Inspired by the topography of a junkyard, the place is filled with muddy puddles, rubber tires, wooden pallets, and cement tubes—nary a slide or sandbox in sight. It gets a little wild. “If a 10-year-old lit a fire at an American playground, someone would call the police and the kid would be taken for counseling. At the Land, spontaneous fires are a frequent occurrence,” wrote The Atlantic’s Hanna Rosin last year. But the kids aren’t left to create mayhem entirely on their own: there’s a staff of adults who are trained to keep a close eye on the play and intervene when necessary. (Rosin reports that no kids have sustained injuries beyond a scraped knee.)
It’s the subject of a documentary by American filmmaker Erin Davis, who described her own childhood to The Atlantic last year:
I was fortunate to have had a very playful childhood in the American midwest. It included roaming through back yards with a crew of kids of various ages, making up our own games. Most adults I talk to have similar kinds of stories and believe that these were valuable experiences and meaningful times in their lives. I’m interested in the discrepancy between what we remember enjoying as kids, and what we tend to allow children to do once we’ve grown up.
Rosin, who visited the site with her own child, quotes Tim Gill, the author of the book No Fear, which interrogates our risk-averse ideology:
[We have] an idea that children are too fragile or unintelligent to assess the risk of any given situation. Now our working assumption is that children cannot be trusted to find their way around tricky physical or social and emotional situations.
That critique seems echoed by the recommendations of the authors of the new study, who wrote:
Given the progressive decline of risky play opportunities, there is a need for action to slow or reverse the trend in order to promote and preserve children’s health.
According to these experts, we need to allow, or even encourage, kids to cause a little mischief—for their own good.