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Most children are drawn to adventurous play, exploring what their bodies are capable of. How fast can they run? How high can they climb? This type of play can make adults uneasy. It can feel risky. But risk is a natural part of life; coping with risk is part of healthy development; and taking small risks is actually safer for children in the long run.  

Some of the many benefits of adventurous play for children include: 

  • Physical dexterity. 
  • Body awareness. 
  • A sense of competence.
  • An understanding of cause and effect.
  • Flexible thinking.
  • Emotional resilience.
  • Fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety. 
Mild, temporary stress is actually healthy, allowing a person to become more resilient.

Adventurous play can look different for each child. For some children, it may take courage to get messy while painting or to touch a bug. Other children may climb a tree or jump from a playground climber. Still others may engage in pillow fighting or rolling down a hill. Whatever the activity is, it is important for children to take themselves out of their comfort zones and to experience mild stress. Mild, temporary stress is actually healthy, allowing a person to become more resilient. And in the long run, it also makes them safer because they are learning how to rely on their own actions rather than always relying on input from an adult.  

One way to illustrate this is to look at how children learn to be safe near lakes or other bodies of water. Children are at risk of drowning when they play in or near the water. One strategy to keep children safe is to keep them away from water. Ultimately, this would be dangerous, however, because at some point children will inevitably find themselves near a body of water. If they have been kept away from it, they will not have a sense of what they can and cannot do in water to stay safe. 

A better strategy for managing risk is to slowly introduce them to water and teach them to swim. This usually starts with a parent sitting with a child in shallow water. As the child grows, they will play in the water with the parent nearby. Over time, the adult will be farther away. Children learn to feel confident in the water while still respecting possible risks. The same can be said for other adventurous play. A child may get a scrape or a bruise, but they will learn from experience. 

Our job is not to keep them from falling; it’s to help them up and hug them when they do fall.

So, what do you do as a parent? When your child engages in adventurous play, rather than stopping the play outright, move closer. Observe and decide if your child seems in control of the situation. You can stay nearby in case they need your assistance. If it seems like your child is at risk, think of ways to minimize the risk. For example, if they are playing with a stick but don’t show an awareness of others when swinging it, ask them to swing the stick at a tree. If they are sledding too close to a tree, help them find a place to sled that is clear. 

Over time, children will become more competent, and you can back away, allowing them to play independently. It is not possible to assign an age for different types of adventurous play, as it will vary for each child. Over time, children will go a little faster and climb a little higher, building courage each step of the way. They will also gain the ability to self-assess risk for their activities.  

Children want to be courageous, so they are attracted to adventurous play. Nothing beats the joy of successfully taking a risk. While we can minimize risks, we cannot eliminate them. Risk is a part of being alive, and children need to have the courage to deal with risk. Our job is not to keep them from falling; it’s to help them up and hug them when they do fall. The real risk is that children won’t explore or challenge themselves.  


More blog posts by Mike Huber, Early Childhood Education Curriculum Specialist:

Scheduled Activities

The Benefits of Outdoor Play

Mike Huber, MAEd is the Curriculum Specialist for Early Childhood Education at St. David’s Center. He is the author of Inclusion Includes Us: Building Bridges and Removing Barriers in Early Childhood(Redleaf Press 2022) and Embracing Rough and Tumble Play: Teaching with the Body in Mind (Redleaf Press, 2016), as well as six picture books including The Amazing Erik (Redleaf Lane, 2014). He is the co-host of the podcast, Teaching with the Body in Mind, and a frequent guest on That Early Childhood Nerd.

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