In any given moment of unsupervised time, my two-year-old can be found scaling the kitchen cabinets, experimenting with climbing out the window of the backyard clubhouse, or attempting to ride his red plastic motorcycle on some kind of elevated surface—like the dining room table, for instance. Needless to say, I watch him like a hawk.
Why do kids, especially young kids, gravitate toward dangerous play? Well, some researchers theorize this compulsion is not only inborn but necessary for normal, healthy development.
In the article, “Children’s Risky Play From an Evolutionary Perspective: The Anti-Phobic Effects of Thrilling Experiences,” the authors categorize six types of “risky play” that children pursue. Each may have an “anti-phobic” effect on kids as they grow up.
1. Great Heights: climbing, jumping from surfaces, balancing on high objects, hanging or swinging at great heights
2. High Speed: swinging at high speed, sliding and sledging, running uncontrollably, bicycling at high speed, skating and skiing
3. Dangerous Tools: knives, saws, axes, ropes
4. Dangerous Elements: cliffs, deep or icy water, fire pits
5. Rough-and-Tumble: wrestling, fencing with sticks, play fighting
6. Disappearing/Getting Lost: exploring alone, playing alone in unfamiliar environments
When kids engage in these different types of play, according to the authors, they get an exhilarated, positive feeling, and they also get exposure to the stimuli they may inherently fear, allowing them to overcome it. In fact, they suggest that preventing kids from exploring these types of play altogether may lead to an increase in psychological disorders in children over time.
In the past, researchers thought that anxiety disorders were due to negative experiences with certain stimuli. While that theory may still hold water with some, more recent studies have suggested that certain anxieties are a normal part of child development, cropping up at different stages of maturation. Those anxieties vanish over time due to natural interaction with the source. Basically, kids get used to certain situations and overcome their fears.
So, hurray for dangerous play, right?
Well, maybe it’s not quite that simple. Looking at that list of six types of risky play is enough to instill in parents their own anxiety disorders. The good news is, we don’t need to completely abandon our instinct to protect our kids.
Here are two important things to remember: First, the potential benefits of risk-taking come from taking perceived risks. A child doesn’t actually have to be in danger, she just has to perceive that she is taking a great risk. Second, while risky play may have an anti-phobic effect, it’s still important that children take on age-appropriate risks.
So, my little two-year-old, if you’re reading this… for now the rule is, no riding the motorcycle down the steps backwards. And just so we’re really clear, I don’t see changing that one for quite some time. Like ever.