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May 27, 2024

What is Risky Play and Should I Allow It?

by Kate Maynor, LCSW-A

Do you have a toddler and find yourself saying “be careful” several times a day? It is only natural for us to worry about our children, especially when they are still learning how to walk and run. Let’s talk about safe ways to approach play, even when there is a risk of injury.

What is Risky Play?

Risky play is when children choose an activity that is exciting or thrilling and has a risk of injury. That could look like balancing on a fallen tree in the woods, climbing the tall rock wall at the playground, or using adult tools to create something.

What are the Benefits of Risky Play?

  • It builds self-esteem and confidence.
  • It helps children learn how to trust their bodies.
  • It helps children build their motor skills.
  • It helps children build executive functioning and focus skills.
  • It reduces the likelihood of an injury in the future.

How Should I Respond When My Child Engages in Risky Play?

  1. Use the “17 second rule” – Step back for 17 seconds and watch quietly to see how your child handles the situation.
  2. Help them only when they have asked for it. Stay close by so you are available in case they ask for help.
  3. Make specific observations about the environment and potential dangers throughout day-to-day life to help your child learn about safety over time. For example, “I notice that branch has thorns on it. I wonder what we need to do to keep our bodies safe.”
  4. Try to avoid vague phrases like “be careful” as they can be confusing to children and cause a distraction. This could impact your child’s ability to trust their body and increase the risk of injury in the future.

It can be difficult to turn out all the noise from society telling our kids to be careful all the time. One key idea to remember when it comes to risky play is that we can make the environment as safe as necessary, not necessarily as safe as possible.

To learn more about our services or if you are looking for parenting guidance, you can speak with a Behavioral Health coordinator by calling 919.237.1337 option 4, or visit our website.

Additional Resources

Risky-Play.pdf (

Healthy childhood development through outdoor risky play: Navigating the balance with injury prevention | Canadian Pediatric Society (


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