Adventurous Play Is Good for Kids' Mental Health, Study Shows

Ready for risk play? Research shows child-led play bolsters your kid's emotional health. Here's how experts recommend parents help their kids embrace adventure.

Mixed race boy zip lining
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Whether your child is climbing trees or chasing make-believe fairies in the forest, adventurous play is one way to stretch the imagination. But it turns out these activities do more than foster creativity. A recent study by researchers from the University of Exeter in the U.K., found that adventurous play—which is also called risky play and is child-led play that induces feelings of excitement, thrill, and fear—may prevent mental health concerns among kids ages 5 to 11.

The study, published in May, found that safe, risky play helps kids dial down anxiety, weather uncertainty, and adopt a more positive outlook on life. With many children psychologically scarred by the pandemic, the latest findings highlight how risky play can help them cope and recover. The study also explains that children benefit from playing adventurously outdoors.

"Nature can benefit kids' mental health in myriad ways," says Nathan Greene, Psy.D., a child clinical psychologist in Oakland, California. Spending time outdoors can reduce stress and boost a child's self-esteem, Dr. Greene shares. Previous research also shows that adventurous play, which is more likely to happen outdoors, helps kids confront their worries. "Spending time outside gives kids real life opportunities to engage in safe risk-taking and troubleshoot new challenges," explains Dr. Greene.

Despite the benefits of risky play, safety concerns can raise parental worries. However, child-led play doesn't require you to throw safety out the window. It merely means letting your kid push the envelope in ways that feel good for you both.

Here are some ideas.

Seek Wonder by Asking Questions

"Wonder seeking is any outdoor adventure that cultivates a sense of surprise, curiosity, and delight," says artist and life coach Andrea Scher, author of the book Wonder Seeker: 52 Ways to Wake up Your Creativity and Find Your Joy. When spending time outdoors, ask your kid: "What's interesting about this activity?" Scher suggests. Posing this open-ended question invites wonder and awe, which can unlock your child's desire to explore and take risks. "When structure is taken away, curiosity serves as the guide," says Dr. Greene. And adopting this mindset paves the way for new ideas to emerge.

Scher says wonder seeking inspired her own sons to develop a new goal. "They're going to explore the bioluminescent algae in the Tomales Bay," she says. This requires kayaking at night (with a guide) and safety planning, but her kids are up for the task. "It will be tiring and cold, but they're excited to experience the magic," she says.

Scher calls her sons' upcoming quest a "wonder date," but kids can discover adventures in their own backyard. Swinging from a tire or playing hide-and-seek can foster excitement and thrill-seeking. And older kids and teens can take bigger risks than younger children. "Whether they're climbing up the side of a boulder or walking across a tree bridge, adolescents ask themselves this question: 'How far can I take things?'" says Scher. Embracing their power and pushing limits gives them a chance to uncover the answer.

Turn Nature Into a Playground

"When I spend time in nature with my young children, I'm tempted to prioritize my own sense of adventure," says Adam Moss, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist in Berkeley, California. "I want to log some solid miles or make it to the next vista, but I try to drop my agenda," he says. When Dr. Moss follows his child's lead, adventure ensues. "Recently, we were paddle boarding, and my son spotted two structures made of driftwood. He immediately dove into imaginative play." The psychologist's son saw the wood as a play structure, and it even became an imaginary house. "We played for hours and even defended our 'driftwood home' from danger," he shares.

Turning nature into a playground gives your child a broad landscape to explore. To a child's eye, rocks can be mini mountains, and wooden sticks can be magic wands or lightsabers. The key is entering your child's world with the same wonder you're trying to cultivate.

Unfortunately, since the pandemic began, a growing number of kids have been struggling with mental health concerns. Research shows in 2020, 9.2% of kids were diagnosed with anxiety, and 4% struggled with depression. "These symptoms can interrupt a child's natural sense of curiosity," Dr. Moss says. But no matter how old kids are, play gives them an outlet to learn through a different lens, which can be a powerful antidote.

Try Cloudspotting

With younger kids, Scher recommends an activity called "cloudspotting." Have your child look at the clouds and describe what they see. They might see animals, monsters, or jellyfish. Of course, there's no right or wrong answer. "Cloudspotting is meant to be a fun, wonder seeking activity that can also serve as a conversational prompt," Scher explains.

For example, if your child sees monsters, ask them to describe what the creatures are doing or saying. Or use your kid's answer to kick off a new adventure. If the clouds look like mountains to your child, take the opportunity to go on a hike or walk up a steep hill.

In the end, these activities can enrich your relationship with your child and their connection with the world around them, says Dr. Moss.

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