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Playing it Safe: Have We Gone Too Far?

Updated: Jul 23, 2023

We have a huge flame tree in the middle of our backyard. It is the perfect climbing tree. My five-year-old daughter often perches herself up there, pretending she’s a monkey or looking at the birds through her pink binoculars.

Visitors freak out when they see her in the tree. They are terrified she will fall. I, too, sometimes worry about her falling – but I have never vocalised this worry to her, and she has never fallen. But every time someone exclaims, “Oh my goodness, be careful!”, her confidence nosedives. Suddenly, she needs help climbing out of the tree and she will avoid it for a week or two.

I’ve noticed this pattern of behaviour in other situations, too. When my daughter falls off her scooter, I try not to make a big deal of it. She usually dusts herself off and jumps back on. At the playground, if she falls over, she simply gets up and keeps playing. But if some well-meaning passer-by exclaims their shock and horror, she doesn’t want to hop back on her scooter and she doesn’t want to keep playing. She will cry and want to go home.

Of course, I hate seeing my daughter hurt herself! And I understand the desire to keep our children safe. But aren’t scrapes, cuts, bruises and gravel rash part of growing up? By constantly going out of our way to prevent these things from happening, what will – or what won’t – our children learn?

Children are happiest when they are playing. Play, especially in the early years, is critical to brain development. Research shows that risky play – climbing trees, playing with tools, adventure playgrounds and interacting with the natural environment – is associated with healthy child development, increased physical activity and self-confidence. What’s more, an Australian-Dutch study found that parents can reduce the likelihood of their children suffering anxiety if they allow them to push their boundaries. This can be as simple as letting them engage in rough and tumble play.

Yet, we are adopting an increasingly cotton-wool approach to our children. To keep them safe, we are determined to remove all risk. The result is that children are spending more and more time indoors – in fact, only 37% of children play outside every day.

The truth is, we can never remove all risk. No amount of soft-fall surfaces will eradicate the potential for something to go wrong. But there is a difference between a risk and a hazard. As defined by Early Childhood Australia, a risk is something that can be negotiated and appropriate for certain situations and children. A hazard, on the other hand, is inherently dangerous and needs to be corrected or avoided – such as exposed nails or sharp edges that could cause serious injury.

Obviously, we want to remove our children from hazardous situations. But it’s also important to let them learn from the world around them. How can they develop resilience and a true understanding of themselves and their capabilities if we constantly restrict and instruct?

Think about what you consider a risk and a hazard. Do you incorrectly label a risk as a hazard or vice versa? Are you a helicopter parent, quick to whisk your child away from the smallest sign of trouble? Or do you go too far the other way, not setting enough boundaries? Both extremes can be harmful to child development and wellbeing.

So, how can we give our children opportunities to be adventurous while avoiding hazardous situations? Here are some ideas for risky play:

Child On a Skateboard
  • Jump on the trampoline.

  • Tug of war.

  • Jump in puddles.

  • Play in the mud.

  • Rough and tumble play.

  • Climb a tree.

  • Walk barefoot through the grass.

  • Skateboard, rollerblade and scooter (with a helmet!).

  • Climb a rock wall.

  • Punch a boxing bag.

  • Flying fox.

  • Collect natural materials and make a fort.

If your child is a little reluctant to try new things, do the activities with them! They will love it if you jump in puddles or climb the monkey bars with them – and you might rediscover your love for these things, too.


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