BC Parent Newsmagazine logo
Join our Newsletter and be entered to win 4 passes to WildPlay! Contest closes June 5th!

Is Outdoor Risky Play The Secret to Healthier Kids?

Education, Health
7 min read

From boosting confidence to improving mental health, outdoor risky play offers vast benefits.

Think back to a favourite childhood play memory. Chances are, it took place outdoors and involved a small element of risk—whether playing near a stream, climbing trees or enjoying a game of street hockey.

“When people reflect on their most cherished childhood play moments, it’s almost always associated with the outdoors,” explained Dr. Mariana Brussoni, a developmental psychologist and injury prevention expert at BC Children’s Hospital—who is one of a handful of global experts on outdoor risky play. “They speak about the freedom of being able to go outside, move their bodies, jump up and down, and run around in ways that the indoors couldn’t provide. In other words: they engage in outdoor risky play.”

Little did you realize it at the time, but this very activity played a crucial role in supporting your development. In fact, a growing body of research reveals that outdoor risky play promotes physical and mental health, builds lifelong cognitive and social skills, and ultimately, helps shape a child’s future. 

What is outdoor risky play?

Outdoor risky play is a thrilling and adventurous form of play that involves uncertainty and an element of risk. While it can take a variety of forms, a common theme is that children have the chance to test their limits and determine how far they want to push themselves. This can involve rough and tumble play, exploring heights or venturing into areas where they may get temporarily lost.

“Engaging in outdoor risky play like this can promote physical literacy, strengthen executive functioning skills, support cognitive development and improve mental health—all benefits that we’ve witnessed firsthand through research conducted right on the BC Children’s campus,”

Dr. Brussoni

If there’s no question that outdoor risky play is vital, it raises the question: Why aren’t more kids participating in it? It doesn’t take long to see that outdoor play today differs from that of previous generations, where children roamed freely in their neighbourhoods with minimal adult supervision. Surprisingly, today, only 37% of children play outside every day.

Dr. Brussoni attributes it to excessive safety concerns, including fears of injury, kidnapping or potential liability risks harboured by many adults. As she points out, though, data indicates that there has never been a safer time to be a child in Canada. It may seem counterintuitive, but outdoor risky play can contribute to keeping kids safer.

A Trio Of Tools

To overcome these hesitations, Dr. Brussoni has led the charge to build a suite of tools on OutsidePlay.org—a first of its kind in the world. The tools empower parents, teachers and early childhood educators with knowledge and guidance to embrace outdoor risky play. The latest tool, launched in September, is designed to encourage outdoor play-based learning among teachers. Optimized for mobile use, it contains short 90-120 second videos that provide high-level learning on a range of topics.

Recognizing the significance of elevating outdoor risky play across all age groups, Dr. Brussoni emphasized, “We are addressing each audience individually, having built these tools based on a deep understanding of the fear-driven cognitions that adults have.”

To help you get started, here are three tips for embracing outdoor risky play.

1. Carve out time for it

To truly maximize the benefits of outdoor play, it’s essential to dedicate time to it every day.
Dr. Brussoni encourages families to treat outdoor play as they would any scheduled activity, like soccer practice. For example, consider going to a playground after dinner, organizing outside play dates or encouraging bike rides. The same goes for teachers: Encourage outdoor play at recess and leverage tools like OutsidePlay.org to incorporate it as part of lesson planning.

2. Create engaging play spaces

It’s equally important for kids to have a good quality space to play in. Many playgrounds have fixed equipment, limited loose parts and designs that hinder movement and creativity. Fortunately, there are simple ways to enhance outdoor play spaces. Adults can, for instance, introduce loose parts—such as sticks, rocks and sand—to ignite children’s imaginations and promote problem-solving skills.

3. Empower kids

Dr. Brussoni recommends that adults envision the future they want for children. Then, think about the type of experiences that will provide exactly that. Looking for ways to foster independence? Give kids the freedom to explore on their own and take risks. Eager to instill eco-sensitivity? Allow them to be immersed in nature to gain a deeper appreciation of it.

Here’s another valuable tip: The next time a child is in the playground, and you want to say “Be careful” or “Stop,” take a moment to pause and count to 17. As Dr. Brussoni advises, “Let the situation play out a bit.” This brief pause often allows adults to reflect on the potential risks and realize that their child is more capable than initially thought.

When children are given the opportunity to explore new activities and experience success, they develop a sense of accomplishment that fosters self-confidence, independence and resilience. Even in moments of setbacks, they gain an understanding that the world won’t collapse around them; instead, they learn to navigate and manage challenging situations.

The Power Of Small

The best way to start in promoting outdoor risky play: small, incremental steps. As parents and teachers begin to embrace it, change will be gradual. Dr. Brussoni recommends starting with one very underwhelming goal—like going outside after dinner—and progressively building on that over time.

The outcomes of doing so are profound. In addition to numerous health benefits, promoting risky play has a significant societal impact. Children need to believe that they can take risks, as this is precisely what fosters the skills crucial for their future, providing support across various aspects of life—from school to work. 

“Children are mightier than we give them credit for,” Dr. Brussoni added. “A big issue we’ve found with the perception of children in society is the belief that they are vulnerable and are perpetually in need of care and protection. Adults also overmagnify the likelihood of serious injury. The worst-case scenario isn’t actually that bad—yet the benefits are immense.”
Visit OutsidePlay.org to learn more.

This research and suite of tools is made possible in part through generous donor support to BC Children’s Hospital Foundation. The Foundation raises funds to provide kids with excellence in health care by continuously driving advancements provincially and globally. The generosity of donors fuels our ability to conquer childhood diseases, prevent illness and injury, and prioritize the unique needs of kids in every aspect of their care. Follow us at @bcchf or visit bcchf.ca for more information.




Vancouver, BC (604) 868-4452

Is Outdoor Risky Play The Secret to Healthier Kids? - BC Parent Newsmagazine

Forest Friends Outdoor Learning fosters lifelong learners with a respect for nature, animals, and each other. With her extensive experience as a naturalist STEM educator and his musical and counseling background, teachers Tanner and Luke guide their small class on outdoor adventures. Here young children build resiliency, explore their curiosities, and connections to one another through nature walks, music, and play!

What are your thoughts?

Related Stories

Join our Newsletter and be entered to win 4 passes to WildPlay! Contest closes June 5th!

No spam, ever.