This blog is part of the Children, Young People and Families newsletter
By Andrea D Smith (1), Kathryn Hesketh (1), Helen Dodd (2), Esther van Sluijs (1)
1 MRC Epidemiology Unit, University of Cambridge
2 Department of Public Health and Sports Science, University of Exeter
Each year on the first Wednesday in August, ‘Playday’ is celebrated. This year’s Playday falls on the 2nd of August 2023 and the theme is ‘Playing on a shoestring – making every day an adventure’. Children are naturally drawn to play and, as a fundamental part of childhood, the United Nations protects the right to play in Article 31 of its Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNICEF, 1989). Play comes in many forms including imaginary, locomotor and social ‘rough and tumble’ play. Risky play, or adventurous play, is fun and exhilarating play for young people; this type of play comes with some possibility of injury but also offers opportunities for children to develop skills and confidence. Evidence suggests that risky play is beneficial across a range of domains, including motor skill development, immunity, brain health, cardiovascular fitness, mental health, social skills and the strengthening of family dynamics.
As they grow up, children’s appetite to test boundaries and engage in risky play increases. As soon as they can move unaided, infants will start to explore their environment. Then, as they age, children will start trying to climb up trees, jump off walls or climb up slides in the wrong direction. Risky play behaviours represent age-appropriate risks, are thrilling and rewarding to children, and act as catalysts for children to be physically active at a higher intensity. Increasing everyday opportunities for risky play is a potential low-cost way to reduce the negative impacts of screen time and sedentary behaviours in children and creates opportunities for children spend more time outdoors. In combination, this contributes to wider childhood obesity prevention. Emerging evidence both in preschool and school-aged children also suggests that those who engage in more risky play are likely to have better mental health outcomes in the short-term and build greater resilience longer-term. These benefits are increasingly important given that in 2022, 40.9% of 10–11-year-olds in England are living with overweight/obesity and prevalence continues to increase across childhood; just under half of all children and young people (5–18 years old; 47.2%) meet their daily recommended 60 minutes of activity; and 1 in 6 children (5–16 years old; 16%) in the UK now have a diagnosed mental health condition.
Despite the known benefits of risky play and the enjoyment that children get from it, data suggest that participation has fallen over recent decades. Key barriers to risky play include parental fears and negative perceptions of the value of free play and outdoor autonomy. These attitudes can result in tangible obstacles to behaviour (such as parental gatekeeping) as well as intangible psychological obstacles (for example, children internalizing their parents’ fears). To help parents become more receptive to embracing appropriate risks in play, it is important to consider the relevant socioeconomic, cultural, and institutional factors that shape the understanding of ‘risk’, including wider societal norms and expectations around health and safety policies. The family unit, for many children, can serve as both a context and a mediator within broader social structures. Educational institutions also provide important opportunities for children to learn their limits, akin to learning maths and literacy. Local neighbourhoods, families and schools are therefore exciting settings to research risky play – identifying new ways to promote risky play in children’s common surroundings can have wide-ranging impacts on children’s physical activity, physical and mental health, and family wellbeing.
Yay for Play Day 2023
With Playday 2023 coming up on the 2nd of August, the chosen theme (‘Playing on a shoestring – making every day an adventure’) feels like a timely reminder. Focusing on low-cost play adventures for children at a time when risky play is declining, and the cost of living is impacting family finances is a key opportunity to champion the holistic benefits of playing adventurously. The takeaway message is clear: You don’t need expensive toys or extravagant trips to create opportunities for children to play adventurously. The simplest of ideas often offer the most fun and importantly, provide hidden benefits to their development and health.