A fascinating new study from the UK found that children who engaged in risky play were more resistant to mental health problems during the COVID lockdowns. The researchers looked at two data sets, one with 417 parents and the other with 1919 families. They identified adventurous or risky play as “child-led play where children experience subjective feelings of excitement, thrill and fear; often in the context of age-appropriate risk-taking.” They found a small, but statistically significant, association between risky play and lowered anxiety and depression during the COVID lockdowns.
The researchers noted long-standing theories that “children have a natural drive to engage in risky play, which evolved because it has anti-phobic effects, naturally exposing children to stimuli that may otherwise be feared such as heights and water,” and that “the decline in play over the last generation is associated with increasing rates of mental health problems in children.” The theories hold that, when children confront their uncertainties and anxiety through positive play experiences, then they learn coping skills that enable them to better deal with other uncertainties.
This study adds to a small body of scientific research in this area. It raises the possibility that we as parents should resist our caretaking impulse to focus on only one metric, physical safety, and start considering the many positive mental health benefits of allowing children to take risks and play adventurously. We don’t have free rein, particularly if we are foster parents, but this may be an area where we need to advocate for our children’s mental health and let them test their limits.