Silhouette of Little Boy Jumping Off Swing

Pediatric Society Declares Old-Fashioned, Unsupervised Play is Preventative Medicine

Kids need to climb trees, jump off things, and ride their bikes fast. That’s what the Canadian Paediatric Society is recommending in a white paper published on Thursday: “Healthy Childhood Development Through Outdoor Risky Play.”

If that sounds positively radical — and also common sensical — you’re right. Mariana Brussoni, a developmental psychologist at the University of British Columbia, has been championing risky play for more than a decade. But the Paediatric Society was never quite ready to endorse her call to action.

It was only when faced with soaring rates of childhood anxiety, depression, obesity, and even myopia that the pediatricians came to “realize that letting kids go out and play could be a way to deal with a lot of these challenging issues,” Brussoni says.

Risky Play Improves Kids’ Mental Health.

That’s because the doctors came to recognize two truths:

1 – Children are hard-wired to play because it is developmental gold. It teaches them how to take action, get along, and solve problems.

2 – Replacing rollicking, kid-led play with structured, adult-led play was a mistake. It deprived children of a million opportunities to exercise their autonomy. And in terms of physical injuries, it turned out to be MORE dangerous.

When kids play without adult intervention it increases their social-emotional skills, says the report. What’s more: It can “significantly reduce children’s risk for elevated anxiety.”

Play does that in a rather obvious way, says Peter Gray, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Boston College, and a co-founder with me of Let Grow. “From an evolutionary standpoint, why do children want to play in a risky way? Because this is how they develop a little courage,” Gray says. “They deliberately put themselves into situations where they’re feeling fear so that, unconsciously, they can have a sense of control over it: ‘I can feel this fear and survive it.’ So when they face a real emergency, they are slightly less likely to panic. And they are also less fearful because they know, ‘Something can happen and I can manage it.’”

The Canadian report recommends pediatricians promote risky play as preventative medicine for mental health.

Risky Play Isn’t Too Risky.

But what about the physical danger risky play involves? How can doctors – and parents, and schools – ignore that?

By looking at statistics, says Brussoni. “From 2007 to 2022, there were two deaths from falls on the playground, and 480 deaths from motor vehicle crashes.” That is, kids as car passengers. And there were zero deaths from falls from trees.

And as the Paediatrics paper notes: “The research has established that children are less likely to be injured while engaging in unstructured activities than when playing an organized sport.”

Sports are more dangerous than goof-around play? It’s starting to sound like the real risk in “risky play” is that our culture has been busy outlawing it. Think of signs like the one in suburban DC that cautions: “Adult supervision required. Do not climb on slides. No jumping from swings.” And, on the monkey bars, “Do not skip rings or rungs.”

Risky Play Can Make a Comeback!

So how can we re-normalize free play?

Brussoni tells parents to start with an “underwhelming” experiment. “Let them out into the backyard while you’re watching for a few minutes.” The next day, sit in the kitchen and don’t watch. You and your kids will get used to time apart.

Another way is to ask your kids’ school to start a “Let Grow Play Club.” That’s when the school stays open for mixed-age free play. An adult is there, but like a lifeguard. They don’t organize the games or solve the spats. Our free implementation guide is here.  [MEGAN: PLEASE KEEP THIS LINK IN]

If even cautious Canada is saying safety culture has swung too far, it’s time to jump off the swing.

One Response to Pediatric Society Declares Old-Fashioned, Unsupervised Play is Preventative Medicine

  1. Mark Headley January 28, 2024 at 11:49 am #

    Bravo! Several Star Trek series have “holodecks” where they can program projections of most anything: characters; scenarios; adventures. With something dangerous, “safety protocols” were normally activated so that, e.g. failure of a parachute to open would result in no injury. Choices to deactivate safety protocols were normally taken as pathological. I did NOT have an impulse to increase risk with my adventurous activities. I recognize several people do, but this not a universal rule. Adventure for me NOT enhanced by risk. I didn’t find horror movies, roller coasters fun. I didn’t have more fun bodysurfing, or diving in a swimming pool, if I was unsupervised, no lifeguards. Risks from cars, scooters, bikes, other pedestrians don’t enhance the fun of my walks. I’d prefer to be entirely safe. EXCEPT that’s not the world confronting us: that LT we must learn to be prepared for. Nothing fun about this for me. However impt for my paper route around puberty. I get irate at the dangerous, even vicious, lawbreaking. Venereal disease risk doesn’t make lovemaking more fun for me. I’d prefer these be eradicated as much as possible. I never found the risks of wretched medical care fun. Hospitals not having Epipens at hand as Anaphylaxis authorities direct? Not for me. The Pandemic no surge in fun. I don’t want to dispute others’ experiences, but mine count too. I agree the embrace of palpable adventure is a huge benefit short- and esp. LT. For adults as well as kids. With much choice from early ages. Anyone here advocate helmets be dispensed with? after a certain age? Stop spending toward breakthroughs in medical care? I did allow my students some freedom to wander as they said was what they did with substitutes. They did indeed return as promised before the period ended. All bouncy, exclaiming I was the best sub ever. I narrowed my eyes, reminding they said they always did this. “Oh, we do. But usually the subs get mad at us!” At this this time decades ago, I figured what’s the point of futile rules? I still feel that way. But realize I’d be courting risk now deemed unacceptable — even if helpfully increasing their safety, preparation Long Term; adventure over numbing boredom ST.