Caregivers want to keep children safe, which can mean being in a near-constant state of evaluating risk. Is there a car coming? Is that toy age-appropriate? Is that hill too steep to cycle down? The list goes on. Whether consciously or not, many parents find themselves continually monitoring their children’s play, supervising them to keep them safe.

When I’m watching my two children in the playground, invariably one will run off, making it impossible for me to give both children my undivided attention. Since I can’t supervise their play minute by minute, I have to allow them to take some risks. I rarely worry about their safety in the playground, though; while playgrounds are not without risk, they are built specifically to allow children to explore and play. Several times, another parent has worriedly pointed out that my toddler is at imminent risk of falling while climbing on the playground equipment. Yet because I know he is a competent climber, I’ve never been particularly concerned.

Indeed, my toddler’s confidence on climbing frames may have benefited from my divided attention. Children need space to explore and learn about the world. Micromanaging their play may affect their development in ways researchers are now beginning to understand more fully. In a recent theoretical paper, researchers proposed that taking part in adventurous play could help prevent anxiety in children. Adventurous play is child-led and elicits feelings of thrill, excitement and even fear – just think of jumping off a tree or into the deep end of a pool.

“Taking part in adventurous play could help prevent anxiety in children.”

The lead author of the paper, Helen Dodd, is a professor of child psychology at the University of Exeter. Dodd proposes that when children engage in adventurous play, they learn how to cope with uncertainty and experience the physiological arousal that comes with taking part in something thrilling. When children grow accustomed to these sensations, suggests Dodd, they are better able to interpret their emotions and learn how to manage similar stressful experiences more efficiently. This is particularly important, given that childhood anxiety is on the riseand about half of anxiety disorders start in childhood. Childhood anxiety is also a predictor of mental ill health in adulthood.

Moreover, Dodd’s research suggests that adventurous play in the playground teaches children how to evaluate risks in the real world – such as balancing on logs in a forest or jumping over a pond. If adults are too quick to interrupt adventurous play and restrict activities, children are deprived of the opportunity and freedom to experience risk. Of course, appetite for risk varies hugely – we shouldn’t push children to do what might frighten them. But some risk can be beneficial.

Childhood play in Britain today is different from what it was a generation ago. In one recent survey, parents and caregivers reported that they, as children, were allowed to play alone outside at the age of nine, on average, whereas their own children are not allowed to do so until they are about eleven. Parents are more protective of their children, mindful of the many risks to their safety and wellbeing. Health and safety measures are extremely strict, and not without good reason (note, for instance, the huge array of toddler-proofing gadgets marketed to parents), but as a result, “children are kept very safe”, says Dodd, which can restrict their freedom to explore independently.

“If adults are too quick to interrupt adventurous play and restrict activities, children are deprived of the opportunity and freedom to experience risk.”

The delay in permitting children to engage in unaccompanied lone play, coupled with a rise in “helicopter parenting”, means that children may be missing out on adventurous play. They have only minimal freedom to take risks and play without an adult watching their every move or structuring their activity. “If we give children space and time, they will create fun and playful things to do that are led by them,” explains Dodd.

It may still frighten us to let children cycle unsupervised down a steep hill, but it is important to remember that letting them do so may promote their mental wellbeing, with lasting benefits into adulthood.

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