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Risky Doesn’t Mean Dangerous: How Adventure Can Help Children's Mental Health

kids walking across chopped logs

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Key Takeaways

  • Risky or adventurous play has been linked to improved mental health
  • Risky play does not mean dangerous play, but activities that lead to sensible feelings of excitement or fear 
  • Risky play is being incorporated into children’s play structures and classrooms


Whether it’s hopscotch, four-square, kickball, or jumping off the jungle gym, play has the potential to improve kids’ mental health. That last example may seem out of place, but recent research from a team at the UK’s University of Exeter confirms that risky play, or in their words, “…child-led play where children experience subjective feelings of excitement, thrill, and fear; often in the context of age-appropriate risk-taking,” can have an effect on mental health as well.

Risky Play Increases Kids Mental Health

The researchers, in focusing on two separate studies, found that risky (also called adventurous) play in school-aged children led to fewer internalizations of symptoms and “more positive affect.” It’s a finding that Dr. Ronald Stolberg, PhD, says matches up with what he’s seen in his practice as a clinical psychologist over the last two decades. 

“Play is social. Today's children are over-scheduled, there's a lot of pressure on them. They are connected to their devices, their screens, and so to get kids away from their devices and out doing activities with their peers that aren't structured is really, really beneficial to them.”

Ronald Stolberg, PhD

There's been a big movement in psychology in the last 10 years and it's exploded during the pandemic. And it's that people can affect their own mental health or the mental health of their children [in] ways other than taking medicine and going and doing psychotherapy.

— Ronald Stolberg, PhD

Stolberg says that the study of risky play mirrors a wider trend in the field.

“There's been a big movement in psychology in the last 10 years and it's exploded during the pandemic. And it's that people can affect their own mental health or the mental health of their children [in] ways other than taking medicine and going and doing psychotherapy.”

Adventure in the Classroom Is Key

One of the main areas where risky play is studied is in the classroom environment, often in relation to school-based interventions in the same way—as the piece points out—that school breakfasts are studied in relation to learning outcomes.

The researchers connected their findings with a need for schools to integrate adventurous play into their planning decisions. They also noted that this was especially important for kids from low-income households.

Kevin Stinehart, a fourth-grade teacher in South Carolina, uses opportunities for risky play in his classroom daily.  Owing to the geographical location and diverse demographics of his magnet school, Stinehart, a 2021 South Carolina Teacher of the Year Award candidate, has been able to rehabilitate a forest classroom—a space used for outdoor education within the natural environment—with the help of the local community.

He’s also instituted a play club, which gets kids outside for at least an hour of play before or after school at various times throughout the week. He says risky play for his students doesn’t mean some kind of daredevil exhibition and can be as simple as reducing fear about the world. 

“Especially with the forest, a lot of students thought that things in the forest were dangerous, or most things were venomous or poisonous, and could hurt them. But by being out there on a regular basis, at least once or twice every single week for hours at a time, they started to realize that the world around them, and nature itself, was not trying to kill them.”

Kevin Stinehart

A lot of students thought that things in the forest were dangerous...but by being out there on a regular basis, at least once or twice every single week for hours at a time, they started to realize that the world around them, and nature itself, was not trying to kill them.

— Kevin Stinehart

Some of the research quoted in the Child Psychiatry & Human Development journal article connects opportunities for play, though not necessarily risky play, with a decrease in harmful ADHD symptoms. It’s a finding that Stinehart sees reflected in his classroom.

“When they're able to be in that full sensory environment, they can really start to shine,” Stinehart says.

Integrating Risk into Play Structure Design

A lot of play structures tend to follow the same mold. There might be a couple of ramps, a set of swings, a set of bars, and a few sensory features, but schools and municipalities have tended to go with the tried and true.

Earthscape, an Ontario-based firm focused on play structures that use natural materials, is trying to shift that paradigm. One of their play designers, Nathan Schleicher, says that being forward-thinking in design means taking risky play into account. 

Schleicher says, “I think you can have risky play that is designed as a challenge course, an obstacle course, things like that. But I'm not super impressed by that mindset because I don't think that it has staying power. Like the American Ninja Warrior, things like that are really cool looking, and they're really fun to do a couple of times; but once you've done it, once you've achieved it, what else is there for the kid to return to or spend time there?"

The research suggests activities that involve heights or water as examples of risky play, but Schleicher says that not all risks are created equal on the playground. He points to the fear of heights, where creating multiple features (areas of the playground) that provide choice enables kids to make their own decisions in a safe environment. For him, playground design when it comes to mental health boils down to a couple of questions. 

“Is this a place where a kid emotionally can stretch themselves? Is there an opportunity in this space for them to emotionally feel safe?”

For Stinehart, his forest classroom includes an overturned tree that kids can treat as a balance beam. He also uses the space as an opportunity to bring animals and plants back to the school to show others. At the beginning of the year, he says students are apprehensive, but that they grow braver, they start to branch out away from the path that runs through the space. 

“One of the examples is a lot of the kids had never jumped into a pile of leaves before, which just was kind of wild to me…. We were having recess in the forest and I’m like, ‘Let's do it.’  So they raked a big pile of leaves and started jumping into the leaves at first. And, you know, some kids are timid and some kids are brave, and then kids started doing flips into the pile of leaves, especially the boys, then the other boys wanted to try and, thankfully, nobody broke any bones or anything. But it was cool to see how they kind of egged each other on in a good way.”

What This Means For You

It may seem a little scary for parents, but allowing kids to play in a way that incorporates risk and excitement is essential to their development, self-confidence, and mental health. Kids should be encouraged to play a little outside of their comfort zone.



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  1. Dodd HF, Nesbit RJ, FitzGibbon L. Child’s play: Examining the association between time spent playing and child mental healthChild Psychiatry Hum Dev. 2022. doi:10.1007/s10578-022-01363-2