There is evidence to support concerns that the absence of opportunities for outdoor risky play will result in children disengaging from physical activity. The research is plentiful and far-reaching about the impact on children if there is a lack of risky play. One Canadian study documented preschool children’s use of play equipment in 16 centres and found that play equipment was used only 13% of the time and was used as intended only 3% of the time (Brussoni, Olsen, Pike and Sleet, 2012). In another study, in the United States, child care providers expressed concerns that overly strict standards had rendered outdoor play areas unchallenging and uninteresting to children, thus hampering their physical activity. Furthermore, participants noted that some children used equipment in unsafe ways to maintain challenge (Brussoni, Olsen, Pike and Sleet, 2012).
Parental concerns regarding children’s safety have been shown to be the most significant influence on children’s access to adventurous, challenging and risky play. Research has found that parents recognize that if they restrict their children’s play in the early years it has the potential for putting their children at increased risk once they are older due to not having practiced risky play. In one U.K. study, focus groups were conducted with 93 children aged 7 to 11 years, living in urban and rural areas. The results showed that the children wanted the opportunities to assess risk for themselves (Brussoni, Olsen, Pike and Sleet, 2012). “Taking risks allowed them to display courage and physical skills to themselves and their peers. Interestingly, while they viewed minor injuries as a way to show that risks had been taken, there was an understanding that too many injuries indicated carelessness or clumsiness, which was perceived in derogatory ways. Thus, they appeared to have their own regulatory system for maintaining risks and injuries at a manageable level” (Brussoni, Olsen, Pike and Sleet, 2012, p. 3140).
Children in other U.K. research (Valentine, 1997) perceived themselves as competent at negotiating their own safety. They felt that they, and not their parents, were primarily responsible for their own safety. There is evidence to suggest that children learn risk management strategies as a result of risky play experiences. Observational studies of children at play found that children appeared to be aware of potential dangers and adjusted their activities accordingly (Brussoni, Olsen, Pike and Sleet, 2012). Sandseter and Kennair (2011) theorized that children’s engagement in risky play reduces fears. If children are not provided with sufficient risky play opportunities, they will not learn to cope with fear-inducing situations and they will maintain their fears, which may translate into anxiety disorders.
“Children’s need for play has been globally recognized as a basic childhood right. Numerous developmental and health advantages have also been linked to children’s need for outdoor risky play as a means to learn through experience. Societal trends limiting children’s access to outdoor risky play opportunities combined with a culturally dominant excessive focus on safety can pose a threat to healthy child development” (Brussoni, Olsen, Pike and Sleet, 2012, p. 3142).
What do those whose work is to prevent risk think about the move to expand children’s opportunities to engage in adventurous, risky and challenging play? In Risky Play and Children’s Safety: Balancing Priorities for Optimal Child Development by Brussoni, Olsen, Pike and Sleet (2012), the authors speak to the risk injury prevention field citing research to support the value of risky play. They encourage the field to foster opportunities to engage in outdoor risky play that aligns with safety efforts where hazards are eliminated but not all risk so that children can evaluate the challenge and decide on a course of action that is not dangerous. The authors cite research that is emerging which considers optimal strategies for providing children with outdoor risky play opportunities that minimize hazards, such as adventure playgrounds or provision of unstructured play materials that can be freely manipulated in conventional playgrounds.