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Relax! 'Risky' Play May Benefit Kids

The Short of It

A new review finds that children who are allowed to play on their own with minimal supervision and take a few risks, such as climbing trees, better develop reasoning skills and get more physical activity.

The Lowdown

Gone are the days of letting the kids explore the neighborhood with one simple line of instruction: Be safe and come home before dark. Parents are more worried than ever of their children getting injured or being taken by strangers.

In a recent review in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, researchers evaluated 50,000 children ages 7 to 15 from eight countries and discovered that self-guided play, like riding bikes, making up games with other children and building forts, forces children to confront real-life situations in a natural environment.

Mariana Brussoni, an assistant professor at the University of British Columbia's School of Population and Public Health, in Vancouver, Canada, is the lead researcher on the project. She says this more adventuresome play also lends itself to social development, such as learning how to negotiate, making up rules for games and figuring out how to get along with others. Children who were allowed to play with less supervision were also likely to get more physical activity than those participating in more structured activities.

Rebecca Berry, of the Child Study Center at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City, says this approach to playtime helps children build confidence in themselves and look less to an external source for guidance when making minor decisions.

"Peer-group play is so important," Berry said. "That's how kids learn to take turns and figure out they can't always go first. They learn to handle their emotions and deal with disappointment."

The Upshot

The researchers also found that this type of free play was less dangerous than having children involved in organized sports teams or activities.

"That just makes sense. Kids who are outdoors more often are just naturally more active," said Brussoni.

So, I say, the next time you head to the park with your children, sit back and relax. It's OK to let them climb the monkey bars, dig in the dirt or make friends with another similar-aged child. Watch them interact and try to only intervene if the child gets hurt or is obviously distressed.

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