As a parent, I am simultaneously fascinated and unnerved by the concept of risky play. I know how good it is to let my kids engage with elements of danger, in order to learn their own limits and conquer phobias, but I can’t help feeling nervous about what could go wrong. (I wouldn’t be a normal parent if I didn’t!)
There are six key elements to risky play, outlined in a 2007 study by Norwegian researcher Ellen Sandseter. They are: 1) playing with great heights, 2) playing with great speed, 3) playing with harmful tools, 4) playing near dangerous elements, 5) rough-and-tumble play, 6) playing where children can ‘disappear’ or get lost.
My kids spend much time engaging with numbers 2 and 5 – wrestling each other wildly and racing around the neighborhood at top speed on bikes and scooters – but the other elements can be harder to find or recreate, especially since we live in an urban setting. So that is part of the reason why we go camping every year as a family, sometimes multiple times in a season.
Camping, particularly in the back country, is the single most effective way that I know of to give my kids access to potential danger, while teaching them to manage it independently and overseeing it from a safe distance. It brings all of the risky elements into a single place. Take my family’s recent canoe trip in Algonquin Park, Ontario, for example.
The first night we camped in a site near a steep rock that plunged about 8 feet into water below. The kids spent hours playing on top of that rock, and while we did insist on the littlest wearing a life jacket in case of a fall, it was an excellent lesson in ‘playing with great heights’. Eventually we showed them how to jump off it into the water, which they loved.
We had evening campfires, which the kids helped to build. They lit matches and fed the flames with small sticks until we had a roaring blaze. Then they roasted marshmallows with very long, sharp sticks that they had whittled to a spearlike point with their pocket knives. The result was occasionally a golden-brown marshmallow, but more often a flaming stick. Check: numbers 3 and 4, playing with harmful tools and near dangerous elements.
Lastly, we were informed as we entered the provincial park of two 16-year-old girls who had been missing for several days after being separated from their group. (They were later found safe.) Getting lost in this park of just under 3,000 square miles (larger than the state of Delaware and 1.5 times the size of Prince Edward Island) is an alarmingly real possibility.
Despite this, we let our kids roam all over the campsites and beyond – because how else are they going to learn to feel comfortable in the bush? We pointed out the trail to the ‘thunder box’ toilet and let them go on their own. We told them to keep the campsite in view when exploring. We told them to stay put if they ever got lost and discussed basic wilderness survival strategies. They took great delight in exploring the underbrush nearby (while I kept an ear tuned to their movements) and found all sorts of treasures like fallen birch bark, curiously twisted sticks, fat hopping toads, and chipmunk holes.
My husband and I camp for other reasons, too, such as wanting to engage in slow travel, expose our kids to the beauty of their home province, spend time outdoors, and save money. But the fact that camping also brings together so many elements of risky play is a great asset that spares me having to seek out or create similar opportunities for my kids.
So, the next time you’re debating a family camping trip, think of it as an astute parenting move, not just a trip for pleasure. You’re contributing to your kid’s psychological development in a profoundly crucial way, while having a ton of fun in the process.