Why Kids Need to Take Risks

Little girl playing with playground equipment
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When you keep your kids from taking risks, you are taking a risk of your own—with your child's health. Research shows that one way kids grow and learn is by having permission and opportunities to venture into the unknown: to climb high, wander independently, use grown-up tools, and bike down a hill as fast as they can.

While it's natural to want to keep your child safe, the chance of injuries may actually be worth it in exchange for emotional and physical confidence. Thankfully, the great majority of injuries sustained during risky outdoor play are minor, requiring little or no medical treatment.

Risk-Taking Promotes Physical Health

Most childhood risk-taking involves at least some physical activity, whether it is walking to school or the park alone, climbing a tree, or trying new skateboard tricks. Prohibiting or discouraging risks can reduce the amount of physical activity your child is getting.

This is important when you consider how much time your child spends each day being active. The great majority of kids—a whopping 76%—aren't getting the minimum 60 minutes of daily active play that they need.

One study found that parents allowing their kids to have independent outdoor play led to more physical activity after school and on the weekends.

Take a look at the types of risky behavior identified by one child development researcher (who observed kids at playgrounds in three countries):

  • Play at heights
  • Play at high speeds
  • Play with tools
  • Play near dangerous elements (such as water or fire)
  • Rough-and-tumble play (such as wrestling)
  • Wandering away from adult supervision

Most of these activities challenge and strengthen kids' muscles, bones, hearts, and lungs—and that's a good thing. Does the thrill of height or speed get your child moving? Embrace it with both free play (such as at the playground or riding a bike) and organized sports (such as skiing, skating, or martial arts).

Emotional Health Benefits

To gain confidence, kids need to try big, scary things. They need to see that even if they fail, they can try again. Eventually, they will master a new skill and gain the positive self-esteem that comes with it. That mastery is more meaningful if the stakes are higher—if there is a bigger risk of failure or even injury.

Most kids don't immediately try to tackle the biggest, scariest obstacle they can find. Instead, they proceed gradually, advancing higher and higher up a climbing structure or tree as they feel more secure, for example.

It might take days or months for some kids to make it to the top of the obstacle. By taking their time, they are actually reducing their own risk instinctively.

They are overcoming their fears little by little. This means practicing persistence and resilience, too, both of which are important life skills that we all want our kids to have.

When kids are active and change position a lot—such as swinging high on a swing or dangling upside-down from the monkey bars—they are developing their vestibular system. And surprisingly, that system helps kids regulate their emotions and even pay attention at school.

Social Benefits of Taking Risks

Along with contributing to physical and emotional health, free play benefits kids' social development as they navigate risks. One review notes that unstructured play promotes children's understanding of social norms and how to follow rules.

Play spaces that allow for risky play promote social interactions as well, such as when one child encourages or helps another. And free play means creativity and problem-solving as kids come up with solutions to obstacles they encounter.

Finally, risk-taking in a group setting helps kids learn self-control as they take turns and work with others. Reaching these crucial steps in social development is vital before children mature into adults, when they will use those same skills in their relationships and workplace.

The importance of proper social-emotional growth can't be overstated. The authors of a 2015 study showed that social and emotional health in kindergarteners predicted their success (or lack thereof) into young adulthood across multiple areas including education, employment, criminal activity, substance use, and mental health.

Obstacles to Risk-Taking

When promoting positive risk-taking in your kids, you may be faced with their reluctance or your own.

Parents' Fears

If you're uncomfortable with your kids taking risks, think about why you feel this way. For example, you may be afraid your child will get hurt trying something new because you got hurt as a child.

Remind yourself that just because you had a certain experience doesn't mean they will have the same one.

In addition, consider the fact that peer pressure among parents is real and can profoundly influence your parenting decisions. If your friends don't allow their children to walk to school or try out the high playground equipment, you may gravitate toward those same limitations with your kids out of fear of what your peers will think.

These factors may or may not apply to you, but they are worth considering if you want to encourage your child to take more risks but feel ambivalent about taking that step.

Children's Fears

On the other hand, you may be all for your child pushing their limits but encounter resistance on their part when you suggest trying something new. We all have different temperaments that influence our propensity for risk-taking.

Some kids are comfortable sailing down the biggest slide at the park the first time they see it, while others need several opportunities to size it up before taking a trip down. Still other children will never want to tackle that slide.

If your child shows no interest in taking risks (however small), try talking to them about possible outcomes. This can help you figure out the best way to help them move a bit out of their comfort zone and see what they're capable of.

For instance, if your child is afraid of the slide because they're worried they might get hurt, you can suggest trying a smaller slide.

If they've never walked to school and are uncomfortable with the idea, you could organize a group of friends to walk together. Another idea is to follow them in your car the first few times.

It's also important to remember that your comfort level with risk may always be different than your child's, and that's OK.

While helping your child grow, remember to respect their unique personality and avoid trying to change them into someone different than who they are.

By providing support and giving encouragement at the same time, your child will learn to stretch themselves. In the process, they'll gain the confidence and skills to take greater risks in the future.

A Word From Verywell

Allowing your child to take appropriate risks while ensuring their safety is a balancing act to be sure. For some parents, it's just easier to set strict limits and not allow their kids to take any risks. While this may lower their chances of getting hurt, it also stifles their physical, emotional, and social growth.

Examining your thoughts (and your child's) around risk-taking will allow you to gain an understanding of how both of you perceive risk. Because many children gravitate toward taking risks, most will enjoy the extra freedom if you allow it.

If your child does not, however, you can gently encourage them to try new things while reassuring them that you're there for support. The next time your child sets out to dangle upside down from a tree or ride their bike out of your sight, take a deep breath and let them do it. It's good for their health.

5 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Brussoni M, Gibbons R, Gray C, et al. What is the relationship between risky outdoor play and health in children? A systematic reviewInt J Environ Res Public Health. 2015;12(6):6423-6454. doi:10.3390/ijerph120606423

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Physical activity facts.

  4. Stone MR, Faulkner GE, Mitra R, Buliung RN. The freedom to explore: Examining the influence of independent mobility on weekday, weekend and after-school physical activity behaviour in children living in urban and inner-suburban neighbourhoods of varying socioeconomic status. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act. 2014;11:5. doi:10.1186/1479-5868-11-5

  5. Jones DE, Greenberg M, Crowley M. Early social-emotional functioning and public health: The relationship retween kindergarten social competence and future wellnessAmerican Journal of Public Health. 2015;105(11):2283-2290. doi:10.2105/ajph.2015.302630

By Catherine Holecko
Catherine Holecko is an experienced freelance writer and editor who specializes in pregnancy, parenting, health and fitness.