The Benefits of Risky and Rough Play

Most mornings, our playground structure is teeming with bodies.  There are children climbing, sliding, crawling and jumping.  A teacher stands nearby and observes a small group of children navigate who will use the slide.

“I’m climbing up right now. Can you wait for me?”
“Yes! When you get to the top, then I will slide down.”
“Why don’t we slide down together? We can make a train!”

Those not on the playground structure might be hopping on the tree stumps or collecting large sticks. They may be rolling down one of our grassy hills or playing a vigorous game of tag.  To some, our students may look wild and out of control.   To us, they are engaging in necessary play experiences that strengthen not only their gross motor development, but cognitive and social skills as well.

In the last several years, our teaching team has had many reflective conversations about our comfort levels surrounding how our outdoor space is used.  We noticed that children were drawn to climbing the slides, scaling the walls and wanting to jump from tall heights.  They loved to balance on narrow edges, fling their bodies down snowy hills and run around as if they were miniature Tarzans!

Peter Gray, Ph.D, a research professor explains why children love risky play and how beneficial it is to their growth and development.

“Children love to play in risky ways—ways that combine the joy of freedom with just the right measure of fear to produce the exhilarating blend known as thrill.” (Gray, 2014) 

There are 6 categories of risk included in the concept of risky play.  They include:

  1. Great heights – Climbing tress and tall structures
  2. Rapid Speeds – Rolling, swinging or biking 
  3. Dangerous Tools – Using hammers, knives, scissors etc. 
  4. Dangerous Elements – Playing near large bodies of water, climbing rock walls
  5. Rough & Tumble –  Chasing and wrestling games 
  6. Disappearing/Getting Lost – Hide and Go Seek 

What’s fascinating is that all young mammals engage in this type of behaviour. From rats to monkeys, goats to human children, all young like to play in risky ways.   In fact, when animals are deprived from engaging this social behaviour, their ability to interact and relate to other animals is severely crippled.

Why is this so important? How does it benefit children?

When children engage in risky play, they are learning how to manage emotions like fear and anger in authentic ways.  Children who choose to sustain a play experience that includes an element of thrill – climbing to the top of the monkey bars or being chased by another child, are flooded with uncertain feelings.  Yet, they are compelled to push their bodies further and adapt to these overwhelming emotions until they finish their play with feelings of triumph.

Gray points out that there is a drastic difference between child directed play and adult imposed instruction. Children naturally know their limits and will avoid risks they are not ready to take.  When adults push children to engage in behaviours they aren’t ready for, thrill can easily turn into trauma and the very experience that might have empowered a child, is now a source of shame and fear.

One area our team is currently grappling with is the concept of rough and tumble play.  Every year, students are drawn to wrestling and play fighting. The general rule at school is, “keep your hands to yourself” and yet we feel like despite our warnings that someone could get hurt, children are compelled to engage in this type of rough play.

Frances Carlson argues that this type of ‘big body‘ play should be allowed and urges parents and teachers to see the difference between rough play and fighting.  Unlike physical fighting, where being hurt is the goal, rough play is fun for children.  They are usually smiling and look a lot like bear cubs rolling around in the grass.  Researchers like Carlson show there are many physical, social, emotional and even cognitive benefits for children.  She points out that rather than ban this type of play, we need to provide support and guidance so it’s done in a safe(r) way.

Her guidelines include:

  1. prepare both the indoor and outdoor environment,
  2. develop and implement policies and rules for rough play, and
  3. supervise rough play so you can intervene when appropriate (Carlson, 2011)

At school, we have asked students to save play fighting and wrestling as home activities.  We are constantly evaluating the benefits vs. risks of activities and feel that the supervision of parents might be better in these particular situations.  One way we encourage children to experience ‘big body’ play is through the use of large, heavy materials.  Our students carry and use heavy wooden planks and tree discs during outdoor learning. In the picture below, they created a whole house using the wooden planks as the walls.  Students use large pots to carry sand and water. We facilitate whole group games of tag, manhunt and hide and go seek.  Our outdoor time is active, creative and most importantly, fun!

It is clear there are many benefits to providing children with risky, rough and big body types of play opportunities.  When our team is deciding how to approach a new idea, we use this time as a chance to model critical thinking skills with our students.  As a whole team, we come up with rules that are designed to allow children the freedom they need to play and learn, but also find ways to minimize the risk of injury.


Carlson, F. (2001) What Is Big Body Play and Why Is It Important?
Retrieved from

Carlson, F. (2011). Rough Play: One of the Most Challenging Behaviours. Young Children.
Retrieved from,%20F.%20Rough%20Play.pdf

Gray, P. (2014). Risky Play: Why Children Love It and Need It. Psychology Today.   Retrieved from

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