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Children's Risky Play from an Evolutionary Perspective: The Anti-Phobic Effects of Thrilling Experiences


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This theoretical article views children's risky play from an evolutionary perspective, addressing specific evolutionary functions and especially the anti-phobic effects of risky play. According to the non-associative theory, a contemporary approach to the etiology of anxiety, children develop fears of certain stimuli (e.g., heights and strangers) that protect them from situations they are not mature enough to cope with, naturally through infancy. Risky play is a set of motivated behaviors that both provide the child with an exhilarating positive emotion and expose the child to the stimuli they previously have feared. As the child's coping skills improve, these situations and stimuli may be mastered and no longer be feared. Thus fear caused by maturational and age relevant natural inhibition is reduced as the child experiences a motivating thrilling activation, while learning to master age adequate challenges. It is concluded that risky play may have evolved due to this anti-phobic effect in normal child development, and it is suggested that we may observe an increased neuroticism or psychopathology in society if children are hindered from partaking in age adequate risky play.
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Evolutionary Psychology
www.epjournal.net2011. 9(2): 257-284
Original Article
Childrens Risky Play from an Evolutionary Perspective: The Anti-Phobic
Effects of Thrilling Experiences
Ellen Beate Hansen Sandseter, Department of Physical Education, Queen Maud University College of Early
Childhood Education (DMMH), Trondheim, Norway. E-mail: (Corresponding author).1
Leif Edward Ottesen Kennair, Department of Psychology, Norwegian University of Science and Technology
(NTNU), Trondheim, Norway.
Abstract: This theoretical article views children’s risky play from an evolutionary
perspective, addressing specific evolutionary functions and especially the anti-phobic
effects of risky play. According to the non-associative theory, a contemporary approach to
the etiology of anxiety, children develop fears of certain stimuli (e.g., heights and
strangers) that protect them from situations they are not mature enough to cope with,
naturally through infancy. Risky play is a set of motivated behaviors that both provide the
child with an exhilarating positive emotion and expose the child to the stimuli they
previously have feared. As the child’s coping skills improve, these situations and stimuli
may be mastered and no longer be feared. Thus fear caused by maturational and age
relevant natural inhibition is reduced as the child experiences a motivating thrilling
activation, while learning to master age adequate challenges. It is concluded that risky play
may have evolved due to this anti-phobic effect in normal child development, and it is
suggested that we may observe an increased neuroticism or psychopathology in society if
children are hindered from partaking in age adequate risky play.
Keywords: anxiety, fear, development, risky play, etiology
The purpose of this article is to explore and understand the functions of risky play
from a modular evolutionary psychology perspective (Buss, 2004; Cosmides and Tooby,
1987, 1994; Kennair, 2002; Pinker, 1997). This modular perspective anticipates that
1 Note: The authors contributed equally to this article.
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different types of risky play might be due to specific adaptations or evolved mental
mechanisms and thereby have specific evolutionary functions. Individual differences in
risk-taking among children (see, e.g., Morrongiello and Lasenby-Lessard, 2006;
Morrongiello and Matheis, 2004, 2007; Morrongiello and Sedore, 2005) are not the issue of
this article. Rather, this article focuses on human universals in children’s way of exploring
challenges in their play environment. Risky play will therefore be considered as part of
children’s normal development. This suggests that disturbances in the species’ anticipated
stimulation (i.e., the lack of risky play) may be part of the etiology of psychopathology.
Specifically, fear of real dangers as an evolutionary adapted non-associative process
(Poulton and Menzies, 2002b) will be suggested as part of normal development. Risky
play, we will argue, is a part of the normal process that adapts the child to its current
environment through first developing normal adaptive fear to initially protect the child
against ecological risk factors, and thereafter risky play as a fear reducing behavior where
the child naturally performs exposure behavior (Allen and Rapee, 2005). This may be
framed more cognitively: The child is motivated to conduct behavioral experiments
investigating their environment with a reduction of safety behavior (Wells, 1997). Both
of these formulations mirror effective modern anxiety treatment (Allen and Rapee, 2005;
Wells, 1997). We will also address the evolutionary psychopathology perspective of
mismatch (Nesse and Williams, 1995); i.e., where the modern environment does not
adequately stimulate evolved mental mechanisms (e.g., Kennair, 2003, 2007, 2011). If the
child does not receive the adequate stimulation by the environment through risky play, the
fear will continue despite no longer being relevant (due to features of the ecology no longer
constituting a risk, and the child’s improved competencies due to physical and
psychological maturation) and may turn into an anxiety disorder: fear responses toward
imagined or exaggerated threats and dangers that reduce the individual’s ability to function
despite the individual having developed the abilities to handle these situations. This article
dovetails with recent contributions to the field by Pellegrini, Dupuis and Smith (2007).
While they consider safe skill acquisition while in an immature state in general, we
consider specifically how anxiety demotivates children from partaking in too risky
behaviors, while at the same time through thrilling play experiences motivates children to
continuously challenge themselves and develop age relevant skill sets as they mature.
Children’s Risky Play, Injuries and Hazards
Risky play is thrilling and exciting forms of play that involve a risk of physical
injury. Risky play primarily takes place outdoors, often as challenging and adventurous
physical activities, children attempting something they have never done before, skirting the
borderline of the feeling of being out of control (often because of height or speed) and
overcoming fear (Sandseter, 2009; Stephenson, 2003). Rather than the avoidance inducing
emotion of fear, a more thrilling emotion is experienced. Most of the time risky play occurs
in children’s free play as opposed to play organized by adults (Sandseter, 2007a,c).
In modern western society there is a growing focus on the safety of children in all
areas, including situations involving playing. An exaggerated safety focus of children’s
play is problematic because while on the one hand children should avoid injuries, on the
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other hand they might need challenges and varied stimulation to develop normally, both
physically and mentally (Ball, 1995, 2002, 2004; Chalmers, 2003; Freeman, 1995;
Heseltine, 1995; Little, 2006; Satomi and Morris, 1996; Sawyers, 1994; Smith, 1998;
Stephenson, 2003; Stutz, 1995). Children test possibilities and boundaries for action within
their environment through play, most often without being aware that this is what they are
doing. Apter (2007) outlines the importance in which this may aid survival when, later in
life, watchful adults are no longer present. The rehearsal of handling real-life risky
situations through risky play is thus an important issue. Paradoxically, we posit that our
fear of children being harmed by mostly harmless injuries may result in more fearful
children and increased levels of psychopathology.
Statistics of playground accidents from several countries show that most of the
injuries related to children’s play are species normal and less severeinjuries that children
throughout evolutionary history have experienced without suffering any permanent harm,
such as bruises, contusions, concussions and fractures as results from falls or hits from
swings, slides, climbing frames or other equipment (Ball, 2002; Bienefeld, Pickett, and
Carr, 1996; Illingworth, Brennan, Jay, Al-Ravi, and Collick, 1975; Mack, Hudson, and
Thompson, 1997; Phelan, Khoury, Kalkwarf, and Lamphear, 2001; Sawyers, 1994; Swartz,
1992), while the fatal playground injuries that result in death or severe invalidity are very
rare (Ball, 2002; Bienefeld et al., 1996; Chalmers, 2003; Chalmers et al., 1996; Phelan et
al., 2001). Thus the injuries themselves rarely constitute trauma that might influence
normal development. While such may occur, and some children are more prone to such
serious accidents and it is important to identify and prevent these children from harming
themselves our focus in this article is, as mentioned, on normal children and development.
Further reviews on children’s accidents on playgrounds have found that the most
common risk factors are not the characteristics of the equipment, but rather the children’s
behavior and normal rashness, such as walking or turning summersaults on top of a
climbing frame, standing (or even standing on the shoulder of others) on the swing, or
pushing others off a slide or a swing (Ball, 2002; Coppens and Gentry, 1991; Illingworth et
al., 1975; Ordoñana, Caspi, and Moffitt, 2008; Rosen and Peterson, 1990). No matter how
safe the equipment, the children’s need for excitement seems to make them use it
Research has indicated a relationship between a child’s willingness to take risks and
their injury proneness (Matheny, 1987; Morrongiello, Ondejko, and Littlejohn, 2004; Potts,
Martinez, and Dedmon, 1995). Studies identify a certain group of children who are high
risk takers (e.g., high on Extraversion and low on Inhibitory Control) and tend to
overestimate their physical ability (Miller and Byrnes, 1997; Plumert, 1995; Plumert and
Schwebel, 1997; Schwebel and Plumert, 1999), although the relationship between such
overestimation and injury is somewhat inconsistent between studies (Plumert, 1995;
Schwebel and Plumert, 1999). Studies have further found that a relatively small proportion
of children tend to account for a large proportion of injuries, and that externalizing
behavioral problems such as aggression, over-/hyperactivity (ADHD) and opposition
towards parents seem to be important predictors for injuries in this group (Cataldo, Finney,
Richman, and Riley, 1992; Jaquess and Finney, 1994; Jokela, Power, and Kivimaki, 2009;
Ordoñana, Caspi, and Moffitt, 2008; Spinks, Nagle, Macpherson, Bain, and McClure,
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2008; Wazana, 1997).
Research showing that overestimation of one’s own ability is higher among 6 year
olds than among 8 year olds who seem to have developed a better ability to make accurate
judgments about risk situations. This suggests that children learn to judge risks through
experience with risky situations and by developing the cognitive skills necessary to make
more accurate judgments (Plumert, 1995; Plumert and Schwebel, 1997). Also, greater
amounts of direct experience with a risky situation itself is found to be associated with
lower risk appraisals in the situation (DiLillo, Potts, and Himes, 1998), probably partly
because experience leads to the ability to manage the risk (Adams, 2001) and develop a
more sound sense of the actual risk in the situation (Ball, 2002; Plumert, 1995). Other
studies have found that younger children (2nd graders) anticipated greater injury severity
and more fear than older children (4th graders and 6th graders) in open-ended high-risk
situations (Peterson, Gillies, Cook, Schick, and Little, 1994). Similar results were found
among 6-10 year old children (Hillier and Morrongiello, 1998). Peterson et al. (1994)
suggest that this may be explained by children becoming desensitized to the possibility of
injuries by repeatedly experiencing near injury or minor injuries, while another explanation
may be that they become better at both assessing and managing the risk (Adams, 2001;
Ball, 2002; Plumert, 1995) and, we claim, reduce their fear of these situations
simultaneously. Investigating risk taking along the continuum from young child to
adolescence, Boyers’ (2006) extensive review of research on the development of risk
taking showed that risk taking is likely to increase with age because of both child
characteristics (e.g., cognitive development, emotional regulation and psychobiological
development) and social characteristics (e.g., parents, peers, environment).
With age, play will change in quality e.g., roughhousing turns more into real
fights where the thrill of playing often will be replaced with more aggression and the
activity seems to be more focused on establishing more adult-like hierarchies (Pellegrini
and Long, 2003; Smith, 2005). Further, for adolescent and young adult males the Young
Male Syndrome (Wilson and Daly, 1985) kicks in and one assumes that, due to sexual
selection (both intra-sexual selection, competing with other males, and inter-sexual
selection, attempting to catch the attention of females), males of these ages take hazardous
risks, resulting in hypophobia (Kennair, 2007; Marks and Nesse, 1994) and increased
mortality (Kruger and Nesse, 2004).
Research on children’s risk perception and injury proneness overall show that this is
a complex issue where several factors (e.g., developmental, personality, emotional, social,
environmental, parental) contribute to explain why childhood injuries occur (Cataldo et al.,
1992; Dal Santo, Goodman, Glik, and Jackson, 2004; DiLillo et al., 1998; Morrongiello et
al., 2004; Ordoñana et al., 2008; van Aken, Junger, Verhoeven, van Aken, and Deković,
2006; Wazana, 1997). It seems that both child characteristics and environmental
characteristics must be considered when studying child injuries, and that one also has to
take into consideration the child’s age in terms of differences in parenting characteristics as
the child grows older (e.g., child characteristics becoming more influential as the parents
supervision eases off) (Matheny, 1987; Ordoñana et al., 2008; van Aken et al., 2006).
Still, most of the studies mentioned do not distinguish between minor and severe
injuries but rather treat all injuries, mostly reported through parents’ self-report measures,
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as one. The most common way to distinguish minor and severe injuries in these studies (in
the few cases this is done) is to categorize injuries that need medical treatment as
severe/serious injuries, while home-treated injuries are minor injuries. Due to this a lot of
non-severe injuries (even medically treated) that will heal well and have no further impact
on the child’s life are counted as severe. In this article, a starting point of our approach is
that minor injuries are a natural part of children’s activity and development and should
therefore not be regulated out of children’s everyday lives (Wyver et al., 2010). We believe
that it is the severe and lethal accidents that should be avoided.
This leads to the important issue of distinguishing between risks and hazards when
discussing risks that children can face through their activities (Little, 2010). The term risk-
taking is usually interpreted negatively, seeing risk and hazard as synonymous (Lupton and
Tulloch, 2002). For instance, within the developmental psychology literature, risk-taking is
usually defined as the engagement in behaviors that are associated with some probability of
negative outcomes (Boyer, 2006). However, most people meet situations that involve some
element of risk throughout their everyday lives. We need, through experience and learning,
to be prepared to meet these risks and to manage them. In this view, risk can be defined not
necessarily as just negative, but as situations in which we are required to make choices
among alternate courses of action where the outcome is unknown (Little, 2010). This
means that risk is not necessarily a danger that needs to be avoided but rather something
that needs to be managed (Ball, Gill, and Spiegal, 2008). Greenfield (2003) argues that a
distinction should be drawn between hazard being something the child does not see, and
risk being uncertainty of outcome and requiring a child’s choice whether to take the risk or
not. Adults should therefore try to eliminate hazards that children cannot see or manage
without removing all risks, so that children are able to meet challenges and choose to take
risks in relatively safe play settings. This means finding the balance between those risks
that foster learning and the hazards that can result in serious injury (Little, 2010).
In this article the focus is, as mentioned, on normal children, and not on injury
prone children or children with pathological proneness to injuries, nor the extremely shy
and introverted children who actively avoid all risks, negative emotions, social situations
and challenges. We also take a positive approach to risk, distinguishing between hazards as
negative and risks as positive and thrilling challenges (Little, 2010) that will improve
children’s risk management and risk perception (Adams, 2001; Ball, 2002; Sandseter,
2010). It seems that a large proportion of normal children have an urge to explore their
environment and to engage in risky forms of play where they can rehearse fighting skills,
and test their physical strength and courage, even though it involves the possibility of
getting hurt for real (Ball, 2002; Buss, 1997; Pellegrini and Smith, 1998; Smith, 1998;
Stephenson, 2003). Could this be due to our evolved psychology? And in that case what is
the adaptive effect of seeking risky situations (albeit as noted, these situations are more
thrilling than really dangerous)?
The Etiology of Anxiety and Phobias
Until recently, most have believed that anxiety disorders were acquired due to
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negative experiences with different stimuli (e.g., Rachman, 1977), i.e., combinations of
classical and operant conditioning (as in Mowrer’s two-factor theory) and social cognitive
learning theory. This has been challenged by different studies by Poulton and colleagues.
Poulton and Menzies (2002a, 2002b) suggest that anxiety appears as a normal part of the
child’s maturation, and that anxiety vanishes again due to a natural interaction with the
anxious stimulus as part of normal development. They argue for a non-associative theory of
phobias and fear acquisition, suggesting that liability to fears and phobias are innate and
evolutionarily arisen, as opposed to the conditioning perspective of phobias being elicited
by experience and learning. This theory has strong support in research of several fears and
phobias (e.g., heights, water, separation; Poulton, Davies, Menzies, Langley, and Silva,
1998; Poulton, Menzies, Craske, Langley, and Silva, 1999; Poulton, Milne, Craske, and
Menzies, 2001; Poulton, Waldie, Craske, Menzies, and McGee, 2000; Poulton, Waldie,
Menzies, Craske, and Silva, 2001). Kendler, Myers and Prescott (2002) similarly found no
support for the stress-diathesis model for phobias in a sample of twins. Rather, Kendler et
al. interpret their findings as strong support of the non-associative theory of phobias and
fear acquisition. Thus a contemporary approach to the etiology of anxiety disorders
considers that they are due in large part to an interplay between genes and environment,
and that they appear at a developmentally relevant age. Normal interaction with the
relevant environment may thereafter reduce anxiety. We suggest that normal interaction to
a large degree consists of risky play which combines positive and activating emotions
(e.g., thrilling sensations) with both a motivation to seek exposure and safety behavior
reduction. Similarly, exposure therapy of anxiety patients attempts to create clinical
settings that simulate this natural anti-phobic behavior in order to habituate, but more
importantly provide the patient with a sense of coping. This also highlights what may be
the result of not having the opportunity to engage in risky play: The child may not
experience that he or she naturally can cope with the fear-inducing situations. And despite
having matured mentally and physically enough to master the previously dangerous
situations, one may continue to be anxious. Continued anxiety hijacks the adaptive function
of fear and causes non-adaptive avoidance of situations that were but no longer are
dangerous for the individual due to maturation and increased skills.
Children’s Play in an Evolutionary Context
According to Pinker (1995) one of human children’s evolved mental mechanisms is
the module to face danger, “including the emotions of fear and caution, phobias for stimuli
such as heights, confinement, risky social encounters, and venomous and predatory
animals, and a motive to learn the circumstances in which each is harmless” (p. 420).
While evolutionists in general have been accused of being biased, from a
developmental perspective, to focus on sexually reproductively mature adults due to the
ultimate importance of reproduction to the process of evolution evolutionary
developmental psychologists need to consider the age and context-specific evolutionary
mechanisms behind development (Bjorklund and Ellis, 2005; Bjorklund and Pellegrini,
2000; Blasi and Bjorklund, 2003). Children need to survive in order to reproduce. They
also have to develop to be able to reproduce. In order to do this they need to solve age
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specific adaptive tasks. There are therefore predictable mental adaptations associated with
childhood. These adaptations will increase the likelihood of solving survival tasks and tasks
involving getting the necessary developmental stimulation, such as the sucking reflex in
mammals (Bjorklund and Pellegrini, 2000), imitations and facial gestures by the infant as
facilitating mother infant social interaction and communication (Bjorklund, 1987;
Bjorklund and Pellegrini, 2000), infants typical high pitched crying combined with gasping
as an evolved mechanism to receive attention and care from their parents (Thompson,
Dessureau, and Olson, 1998; Thompson, Olson, and Dessureau, 1996) and evolved
psychological mechanisms that enable children to learn language (easier than in older age)
in order to communicate effectively (Pinker, 1995).
Bekoff and Byers (1981) state that play in general would have been eliminated, or
never would have evolved, unless it had beneficial results (functions) that outweighed its
disadvantages (costs). The ontogenetic adaptive function of play is that children may learn
skills that are important for adulthood (Bjorklund and Pellegrini, 2000, 2002; Pellegrini and
Bjorklund, 2004; Pellegrini and Smith, 1998). Still, some of the presumably adaptive
characteristics of infancy and childhood are not adaptations for later adulthood, but rather
have been selected to adapt individuals to their current environment. Play might therefore
be a specific adaptation relevant primarily to childhood (Pellegrini and Bjorklund, 2004;
Pellegrini and Smith, 1998) with both deferred and immediate benefits (Bekoff and Byers,
1981; Pellegrini and Bjorklund, 2004; Pellegrini and Smith, 1998). According to Bjorklund
and Pellegrini (2000), this view is consistent with the perspective that the functional
pressure of natural selection also exists during childhood.
According to Bruner (1976), play provides a less risky situation than “real life,
thus minimizing the consequences of one’s actions. Aldis (1975) and Smith (2005) argue
that play for practice initially evolved from immature agonistic behavior such as play
fighting and pursuit-and-flight behavior, which had selective advantages for survival
because individuals engaging in this play were more trained in survival behavior than were
those without such practice. Similarly, Sutton-Smith (1997) discusses that play in an
evolutionary selective model creates uncertainties and risks that children rehearse when
managing both fictive and real play situations.
Risky Play and Hypophobia
Two opposing approaches to explaining risky play behavior would be a general
immaturity in considering dangers, or that the risk-taking behavior itself is sought out
especially and the risk is compensated by the stimulation it provides. The low level of
actual harm both in rough and tumble play and general risky play suggests that the
immaturity explanation is not convincing. Rather, risky play seems to involve a certain
degree of hypophobia (Marks and Nesse, 1994) or a suspended fear of being hurt in
potentially harmful situations. Many phenomena in the modern ecology are real hazards
the large amounts of sugar, fat and salt, driving, unprotected intercourse, guns, medication,
razorblades, etc. are dangerous items that do not naturally elicit fear reactions; few people
consider the risk of driving along the highway. On the other hand, the very common
phobias include fear of heights, water, the dark, and animals such as spiders, snakes,
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rodents and birds. This suggests that hypophobia may be due to a mismatch between our
species’ ancestral environment (i.e., the environment our species evolved to be adapted to)
and the modern environment (Nesse and Williams, 1995). If one calculated the risk of the
modern phenomena versus the more evolutionary relevant stimuli one will soon see that we
are hypophobic of real risks, and hyperphobic of non-hazardous risks. Most cases of risky
behavior would elicit fear, which would reduce risky behavior. Therefore, the lack of
adaptive fear in risky play warrants an explanation preferably an evolutionary
explanation, as risky play provides an evolutionary paradox. Both the evolution and the
development of fear and anxiety (Kennair, 2007; Marks and Nesse, 1994) may therefore be
relevant to an understanding of risky play.
Mental development might also influence the assessment of risk. Parenthood, or just
being in a caretaker or caregiver role, may increase adaptive worry in order to keep
children safe. Findings that, e.g., children are more at risk from injury through accidents
when fathers rather than mothers are involved in taking care of them suggests that maybe
mothers have specific care giving mechanisms involving adaptive worry (Schwebel and
Brezausek, 2004). Regarding risk perception, it is also of interest to consider how more
impulsive children with ADHD seem to be more hypophobic of dangerous situations than
children in general (Barkley, 2001; DiScala, Lescohier, Barthel, and Li, 1998; Gayton,
Bailey, Wagner, and Hardesty, 1986; Swensen et al., 2004), as well as the findings that
children with a highly active and risk taking temperament engage in more risk taking
behavior and thus experience more unintentional injuries (Matheny, 1987; Plumert and
Schwebel, 1997; Potts, Martinez, and Dedmon, 1995; Schwebel, Brezausek, and Belsky,
2006; Schwebel and Plumert, 1999). However, one needs to differentiate between disturbed
risk taking behavior and normal risky play.
It is therefore important to understand that our evolved psychology perceives risk
differently than an objective assessment of statistical risk. What is perceived as risky might
not necessarily be risky, while what actually is risky might not be perceived as risky. In
normal, evolutionarily relevant situations one may expect that the real risk is relatively
accurately calculated. Despite parents or younger children being anxious, the maturing
child may alter their perception of the risk of specific stimuli. Thus the fact that children
seem less fearful of typically fear-eliciting stimuli when engaged in risky play, and that the
risk seems to be manageable for them (i.e., injuries are rarely serious), suggests that a fear
modulating mechanism may be activated in this specific context. We believe this
modulating mechanism provides the child with emotions that motivate approach and
investigation, i.e., the thrilling emotions involved in risky play (rather than fear that
motivates avoidance and safety behavior).
Possible Functions of Six Categories of Risky Play
Our hypothesis in this article is that the child, through play, reduces anxiety of
situations that used to be dangerous when the child was younger.
A study aiming to categorize risky play through observations and interviews of
children and staff in preschool suggested six categories of risky play (Sandseter, 2007a)
that were recently confirmed by additional video observations and interviews (Sandseter,
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2007b). The emerging categories are described in Table 1.
Table 1. Categories and subcategories of risky play (revised from Sandseter, 2007a, 2007b)
Categories Risk Sub-categories
Great heights Danger of injury from falling Climbing
Jumping from still or flexible
Balancing on high objects
Hanging/swinging at great heights
High speed
Uncontrolled speed and pace that can lead
to collision with something (or someone) Swinging at high speed
Sliding and sledging at high speed
Running uncontrollably at high speed
Bicycling at high speed
Skating and skiing at high speed
Dangerous tools
Can lead to injuries and wounds
Cutting tools: Knives, saws, axes
Strangling tools: Ropes, etc.
Dangerous elements Where children can fall into or from
something Cliffs
Deep water or icy water
Fire pits
Where the children can harm each other
Fencing with sticks, etc.
Play fighting
Disappear/get lost Where the children can disappear from
the supervision of adults, get lost alone Go exploring alone
Playing alone in unfamiliar
These categories support previous research on children’s play in general and risk-
taking play in particular (Aldis, 1975; Blurton Jones, 1976; Humphreys and Smith, 1984;
Kaarby, 2004; Smith, 1998; Stephenson, 2003).
Using a modular perspective based on Sandseter’s (2007a, 2007b) six categories,
each type of risky play will be considered separately. Sandseter’s (2007a) interviews
revealed that some of the categories were perceived risky by both children and staff (great
heights, high speed and rough-and-tumble play), while others were unanimously perceived
risky only by the staff (dangerous tools and dangerous elements), and still others were
perceived risky only by the children (danger of disappearing/getting lost). This is in accord
with the concepts of mismatch (Nesse and Williams, 1995) and hypophobia (Marks and
Nesse, 1994) as previously mentioned. The relative stability of our evolved psychology and
the rapid progress of socio-cultural development have led to the fact that not all dangerous
items or situations elicit fear or anxiety reactions (Kennair, 2007). In addition the
perception of what is risky or not may be due to individual genetic differences and
environments (Kendler et al., 2002) as well as experience and habituation (Poulton and
Menzies, 2002a, 2002b). In the following, the categories of risky play perceived as risky
and thrilling by the children will be addressed first, followed by the categories perceived as
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risky only by the staff (in this sense, caregivers). Each of the categories will be discussed in
relation to possible functions and anti-phobic effects.
Play with great heights
The most frequent form of risky play in great heights is climbing. Children climb on
all climbable features, such as trees, playground climbers, big rocks, steep slopes, hillsides,
etc. Jumping down from high places, incidents of hanging or dangling from heights and
balancing close to drops are also common kinds of play with great heights (Sandseter,
2007a, 2007b).
Possible functions. Benefits of this kind of play may be to get to know ones
ecology, exploring the environment (Bjorklund and Pellegrini, 2002) and practicing and
enhancing different motor/physical skills for developing muscle strength, endurance,
skeletal quality, etc. (Bekoff and Byers, 1981; Bjorklund and Pellegrini, 2000; Byers and
Walker, 1995; Humphreys and Smith, 1987; Pellegrini and Smith, 1998). All physical
practice and training might be relevant for the developing child. Play in great heights also
involves training on perceptual competencies such as depth-, form-, shape-, size-, and
movement perception (Rakison, 2005), and general spatial-orientation abilities (Bjorklund
and Pellegrini, 2002). These are important skills both for survival in childhood (i.e.,
immediate benefits) and for handling important adaptive tasks in adulthood (i.e., deferred
Although not describing in detail the behavior patterns of the play, many
ethnographic studies provide evidence for locomotor play such as chasing, running,
climbing, jumping down, sliding, swinging and different forms of acrobatics in a wide
range of hunting-and-gathering and agricultural village cultures throughout the world (see,
e.g., Gosso, Otta, Morais, Ribeiro, and Bussab, 2005; Power, 2000; Smith, 1982, 2005).
Further strengthening the evolutionary explanation, locomotor play similar to human
locomotor play is also found among non-human mammals (e.g., primates, carnivores) and
some kinds of birds (Aldis, 1975; Power, 2000; Smith, 1982). Aldis (1975) also shows that
an important aspect of this kind of play in both animal and human groups is seeking out
thrills and slightly fearful situations related to height, speed, daring movements and
unpredictable outcomes of the play.
Anti-phobic effect. According to Poulton and Menzies (2002a, 2002b) one might
expect the fear of heights to develop naturally. Contrary to earlier theories claiming that
fear of heights was due to serious accidents, Poulton et al. (1998) found that children
sustaining injury due to falls both before age 5 and between ages 5 and 9 did not have a
greater frequency of fear of heights at age 11 and height fear and phobia at age 18.
Interestingly, injurious falls from heights between ages 5 and 9 were associated with the
absence of height fear at age 18, thus indicating an opposite direction than that predicted by
conditioning, and providing strong support of a non-associative theory of fear acquisition in
the development of a fear of heights (Poulton et al., 1998). Those who have fear of heights
at low age usually avoid heights, while those who have a low level of fear of heights are
more likely to engage in risky behavior near heights, thus experiencing more serious falls.
Risky play with great heights will provide a desensitizing or habituating experience and
maturationally adequate mastery providing cognitive restructuring. This will result in less
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fear of heights later in life.
Play with high speed
Swinging with high speed, riding a bike at high speed, running at high and
uncontrolled speed, or sliding down slides, hills, cliffs, etc. are common forms of this
category of risky play. Sandseter (2007a, 2007b) discovered that children often increased
the risk of swinging by standing on the swing, swinging several children together or in
other challenging ways, or in sliding down snowy slopes by throwing themselves on their
stomachs head first, backwards, or several children in a row, etc.
Possible functions. The most obvious evolutionary function of play in high speed is
the enhancement of perception particularly depth and movement perception, but also
the perception of size and shape (Rakison, 2005). Another obvious benefit of high speed
activities such as swinging and sliding is training on spatial-orientation abilities (Bjorklund
and Pellegrini, 2002). Also, the more general physical and motor stimulation of play where
children move around running, bicycling, walking up and sliding down hills or slides,
enhances their physical fitness and motor competence (Bekoff and Byers, 1981; Bjorklund
and Pellegrini, 2000; Byers and Walker, 1995; Pellegrini and Smith, 1998).
The aforementioned documentation on locomotive play such as chasing, running,
sliding and swinging found both in different human cultures across the world as well as in
non-human mammals (see, e.g., Gosso et al., 2005; Power, 2000; Smith, 1982; Smith,
2005) applies to the evolutionary argument of the function of play with high speed.
Anti-phobic effect. This kind of play might be motivated by mechanisms that were
necessary for our tree-dwelling ancestors to be motivated to swing from tree to tree. The
result of this behavior may be a greater chance of falling and hurting oneself, but at the
same time the behavior will decrease the chance of developing anxiety of heights and also
fear of emotional activation in general.
High speed was not a typical part of our hominin ancestors’ ecology. There are
therefore no obvious hominin adaptations for high speed. Thus it seems more likely to be
more archaic or due to by-products of perceptual systems. Still, the anti-phobic effects of
feeling the thrill and excitement, as well as associating physiological activation with
positive experiences and emotions, ought to be assessed in further research.
Rough-and-tumble play
Typical activities in this category of risky play are fighting, fencing with
sticks/branches, play wrestling and chasing (Blurton Jones, 1976; Humphreys and Smith,
1984; Sandseter, 2007a, 2007b; Smith, 2005).
Possible functions. Rough-and-tumble play is the most common form of play in
non-human mammals (Aldis, 1975; Bekoff and Byers, 1981; Fry, 2005; Power, 2000;
Smith, 1982), and it is also found, not only in Western industrialized cultures, but in a wide
range of other cultures such as hunting-and-gathering and agricultural village cultures all
over the world (see, e.g., Fry, 2005; Gosso et al., 2005; Power, 2000; Smith, 2005).
Research on rough-and-tumble play in both animals (e.g., primates, carnivores) and
humans have also found that males engage more in play-fighting than females (Aldis, 1975;
Bjorklund and Pellegrini, 2002; Power, 2000; Smith, 1982; Smith, 2005) and that the
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roughness in the play seems to increase with age (Power, 2000). The findings that rough-
and-tumble play such as play-fighting is common across cultures and animals similar to
humans support the suggestion that this kind of play is a result of an evolutionary adaptive
Rough-and-tumble play involves great physical and motor stimulation, and the
functions, both deferred and immediate, of physical training through play activities is
addressed above. Another possible immediate function of rough-and-tumble play is to
enhance complex social competences such as affiliation with peers, social signaling, good
managing and dominance skills within the peer group, bargaining, manipulating and
redefining situations (Flinn and Ward, 2005; Humphreys and Smith, 1987; Pellegrini and
Smith, 1998; Smith, 1982). According to Bjorklund and Pellegrini (2000), rough-and-
tumble play also serves deferred benefits by enhancing survival and reproduction,
particularly for boys who most often engage in this kind of play, of gaining competence
in aggression, fighting, social competition and experience in dominant and subordinate
roles. These are social competencies that are useful for adult life and evolved strategies for
enhancing survival, as males have had to face competition, dangers and physical challenges
as hunters (Jarvis, 2006). For kindergarten children there rarely is an aim to hurt the other
and both parts partake in this as a playful activity (Humphreys and Smith, 1987). Still,
research suggests that rough-and-tumble play in preschool- and primary school-aged
children provides practice and hones skills for regulating aggressive behavior (Dodge,
Coie, Pettit, and Price, 1990). Studies of peer perception found that non-aggressive
cooperative children were liked by peers and that bullies were disliked by peers (Boulton
and Smith, 1994, 1996; Dodge et al., 1990), and that physical aggressive behavior among
boys may continue into adolescence (Broidy et al., 2003; Scholte, Engels, Overbeek,
Kemp, and Haselager, 2007). Not being able to regulate aggression and real hostile
behavior in rough play situations is therefore disadvantageous for the social development of
a child.
It is worth noting that dominance in rough-and-tumble play becomes even more
obvious as one enters adolescence (Humphreys and Smith, 1987; Smith, 1997). As the
boys, as is most often the case, move toward puberty the roughhousing becomes more
competitive and the weaker fighter will be dominated by the stronger fighter. The
roughhousing thus changes character and function and becomes more a hierarchy building
Rough-and-tumble play thus seems to have important functions, both immediate
and deferred, for motor practice, social skills practice, aggression regulation and physical
health. Anti-phobic effect. The anti-phobic effect of rough-and-tumble play is not very
evident, and there is a lack of research looking into this issue. It might be that this is not a
relevant function of this kind of play. Still, a couple of researchers have outlined the
possibility that rough-and-tumble play, particularly the kinds where the participants aim to
scare each other by taking the role as monsters or other scary creatures, the kinds where
war-play is the essential focus, and the kinds including unpredictable and sudden
movements and high sounds, can be a form of play-fear reinforcement that can reduce
anxiety by habituation in a pretend situation (Aldis, 1975; Power, 2000). One might
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speculate that social phobia and other forms of anxiety involving social hierarchy, physical
closeness and social evaluation (i.e., fear of people) might be reduced due to a
normalization of the intimacy and self-assertion involved in normal rough-and-tumble play.
Organized rough and tumble play, such as Judo practice, has been researched and some
findings suggest that children become less aggressive, less emotionally disturbed and less
anxious through such practice (Gleser and Lison, 1992; Lamarre and Nosanchuck, 1999).
Play where the children candisappear” / get lost
Both Sandseter (2007a) and Davidsson (2006) have found that children love to walk
off alone and go exploring away from the eyes of adults. Children experience a feeling of
risk and danger of getting lost on occasions where they are given the opportunity to
“cruise” on their own exploring unknown areas; still, they have an urge to do it (Sandseter,
Possible functions. The urge to walk off alone in new and undiscovered
environments without supervision from adults is children’s way of exploring their world
and becoming at home in it (Bjorklund and Pellegrini, 2002; Smith, 1998). Research has
shown that exploration is an important part of children’s play (Davidsson, 2006; Kaarby,
2004; Sandseter, 2007a). According to Bjorklund and Pellegrini (2002), the fact that boys
engage more than girls in exploration, and also explore larger areas than girls, is related to
what Bowlby called the environment of evolutionary adaptedness (EEA) where males were
hunters and had to be able to safely move around in diverse and large areas away from
home. This is in accordance with the research of Silove, Manicavasagar, OConnell and
Morris-Yates (1995) arguing that a lower level of separation anxiety among boys than girls
is due to the adaptive pressure for boys to learn hunting skills and the courage to venture
far from the home, and opposite for girls to learn skills for nurturing and creating safe
environments for child-rearing. Enhancing perceptual competencies such as depth-, form-,
shape-, size-, and movement perception is also a natural function of children’s exploration
of their environment (Rakison, 2005).
Studying animal and human play, Aldis (1975) makes a distinction between serious
exploration where the human/animal learns about their environment, and play which is just
playful activity. Aldis describes serious exploration with the example of a young rhesus
monkey that first independently leaves its mother to explore the immediate proximity, and
at the first sign of danger will flee back to her. Then, over a period of time, the young
rhesus monkey will gradually fan out from “home base” to explore more distant areas.
Aldis argues that through serious exploration, rather than play, animals learn what features
of the environment lead to food, which lead to danger, and so on. Still, Aldis admits that it
is difficult to differentiate between serious exploration and play, and that often a new and
unknown environment or object is approached by serious exploration in the beginning and
then gradually explored further through play. In our opinion exploration performed in a
play “atmosphere,” such as pretend play, is a kind of exploratory play, teaching the players
about their environment though play situations.
Anti-phobic effect. The fear of separation from caretakers is common in humans
(Buss, 2004) particularly for the female part of the human population (Silove et al.,
1995).The urge among children for going exploring on their own is puzzling in this view.
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In our hominin ancestors’ past, getting lost probably was a real danger, highlighting the
adaptive function of initial separation anxiety in young children. Are these children less
anxious than would have been adaptive for them in the past? In most western societies
children sleep alone, which is both culturally and evolutionarily a novel situation. One
might speculate that this may create a larger degree of individuality and also a hypophobia
of being alone. In any case, as the child matures, independence and investigation of the
surroundings is necessary also in order to find food to feed themselves.
Is separation anxiety an evolved non-associative fear that can benefit from
desensitization/habituating behavior? A study by Poulton et al. (2001) revealed that
separation anxiety was largely independent of associative factors, strongly supporting a
non-associative explanation. Interestingly the results showed that the amount of separation
experiences before age nine correlated negatively with the separation anxiety symptoms at
age 18, suggesting an “inoculation” effect of early separation events. The results also
indicated that planned separations can help children to learn not to fear separations. These
results support the assumption of children’s voluntary separation from caretakers, by
wandering off alone, as a mode of anti-phobic behavior. As in the case of anti-phobic
effects of play in great heights (Poulton et al., 1998), one could expect that children with
less fear of separation would be more willing to expose themselves to separation events
than children with a high fear of separation. Even so, when having the opportunity to
voluntarily plan and carry out a separation from their caretakers by exploring new and
unknown areas, experiencing the thrill of the risk of being lost, children seem to
“inoculate” themselves from the anxiety of separation.
Play with dangerous tools
Play with tools that are potentially dangerous included behaviors such as using a
knife for whittling, a saw for cutting down branches, a hammer and nails for carpentering,
and an axe for chopping wood (Sandseter, 2007a, 2007b). This is one of the categories that
are risky from an adult point of view, while the children are more disposed to feel this is
only an exciting activity (Sandseter, 2007a). It is also worth noting that this behavior was
much more typical among children, and not considered risky by adults only one or two
generations ago.
Possible functions. Play with dangerous tools can be regarded as a kind of object
play. The central point of object play is manipulation of objects in different ways, such as
hitting and throwing them (Bjorklund and Pellegrini, 2002; Pellegrini and Bjorklund,
2004). Pellegrini and Bjorklund (2004) argue that the large amount of time children spend
in play and manipulation of objects is an indication of the importance and adaptive
relevance this has for competencies both in childhood and later in life. Also supporting the
adaptive function, play with objects has been described in a wide variety of human cultures
throughout the world (Gosso et al., 2005; Smith, 2005). Object play is also observed in
non-human mammals and great apes (Bruner, 1976; Pellegrini and Bjorklund, 2004; Power,
2000; Ramsey and McGrew, 2005; Smith, 1982). Aldis (1975) observed object play among
some kinds of carnivores and to some extent among primates, although primates tend to be
more engaged in serious exploration and manipulation of objects. Still, Aldis’ results show
that the serious exploration of objects often turned into play with objects when the primates
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were more familiar with the new object.
Play with objects is beneficial for individuals to learn properties of objects and their
functions, and seems to be valuable in emergent tool use (Bjorklund and Pellegrini, 2002).
The fact that boys are more likely than girls to engage in object oriented play, and they do
object play more vigorously and physically while girls seem to engage in more solitary
manipulation of objects, suggests that this provides deferred benefits of important skill
acquisition for the adult human where males would have to prepare for hunting and women
for gathering (Bjorklund and Pellegrini, 2002; Pellegrini and Bjorklund, 2004).
Anti-phobic effect. Some forms of hypophobia (Marks and Nesse, 1994) will be due
to a mismatch between our ancestors’ environment that we are adapted to (Nesse and
Williams, 1995; Tooby and Cosmides, 1990) and the current environment. Many dangerous
tools never existed in the past and we did not evolve natural fears of them. Even though
tools such as knives and axes existed in earlier phases of human evolution (although less
sharp), object play (including playing with dangerous tools) more likely is motivated by an
interest in tools and acquisition of tool handling skills than by anti-phobic effects. Future
research into the differences between play involving modern tools and role-playing adult
skill behavior might shed light into the different motivational mechanisms.
Play near dangerous elements
Play near dangerous elements in Sandseter’s (2007a, 2007b) study included play on
top of high and steep cliffs, play near deep water by the seaside and tumultuous play near a
burning fire pit. Like in the case of play with dangerous tools, this is a category that
primarily is regarded risky from an adult point of view, while some of the children thought
this was scary and others did not (Sandseter, 2007a).
Possible functions. Similar to some of the other categories of risky play, one can
assume that this kind of play serves a function of exploring the environment and becoming
familiar with its possibilities and constraints. Still, research shows that some of the children
are not very attentive to the fact that they are playing near a dangerous element, but rather
are preoccupied in their activity, such as role play, play chasing and the like (Sandseter,
2007b). The potential hazard is thus not always perceived by the children (Sandseter,
2007a). The function of playing near dangerous elements may therefore be an indirect
function, the dangerous element not being the essential part of the play itself, still having an
effect on how children learn to handle different environmental features and elements such
as water, steep and high cliffs, and fire. Children have been playing close to dangerous
ecological features throughout our species’ evolutionary history so one would assume
that there has been selection to improve children’s ability to be aware of real risks.
Anti-phobic effect. If one assumes that fear of potentially dangerous elements,
similar to fear of height (Poulton et al., 1998), are non-associative evolutionarily-relevant
fears that arise naturally in young humans, the hypothesis of habituation through exposure
to the stimuli and the falsification of exaggerated belief of hazards through behavioral
experiments would be reasonable also for fear of high and steep cliffs, water and fire. It is
possible that the children who were not afraid of dangerous elements in Sandseter’s (2007a,
2007b) studies have had more anxiety reducing experiences than the ones that thought that
playing near dangerous elements was scary. We addressed the anti-phobic effect of
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experiencing injurious falls through exposing oneself to great heights above (Poulton et al.,
1998). A study carried through by Poulton et al. (1999) found similar results on fear of
water. This study concluded that there was no relationship between water confidence and
experiencing water trauma before age nine and the symptoms of water fear at age 18. The
authors conclude (see also Poulton and Menzies, 2002a; Poulton and Menzies, 2002b) that
their studies support a non-associative perspective arguing that the fear of water arises due
to innate reasons. Thus, anxiety is due to maturation, rather than associative learning of
anxiety (Rachman, 1977). Further, Poulton et al. (1999) conclude that anxiety is reduced
over time with repeated exposure to the stimuli. Thus, play behavior near dangerous
elements such as high cliffs, water and fire may be natural, anti-phobic behavior, while
preventing this behavior may increase the risk of phobias and a lack of normal coping
behavior in heights, water or close to fire.
Survival Tasks, Functions and Sex-Differences
One would assume that all children would gain from enhancing physical, social and
perceptual skills and being familiar and comfortable in their surrounding environment, as
well as acquiring good risk management skills and anti-phobic effects of stimulation. Still,
research concludes on boys being far more represented than girls in the willingness to take
risks and engage in risky play (Cairns and Cairns, 1994; Ginsburg and Miller, 1982;
MacDonald, 1995; Morrongiello and Rennie, 1998; Smith, 1998), intense challenging
physical play and rough-and-tumble play (Blurton Jones, 1976; DiPietro, 1981; Eaton and
Enns, 1986; Eaton and Yu, 1989; Humphreys and Smith, 1984, 1987; MacDonald, 1998;
Pellegrini and Smith, 1998; Power, 2000; Smith, 1997, 2005). Research findings also
indicate that boys have a higher injury liability than girls (Boles, Roberts, Brown, and
Mayes, 2005; Coppens and Gentry, 1991; Matheny, 1987; Morrongiello and Rennie, 1998;
Ordoñana et al., 2008; Rosen and Peterson, 1990; Schwebel, Brezausek, and Belsky, 2006).
Can this sex-difference be accounted for in an evolutionary perspective? Several authors
(see, e.g., Bjorklund and Pellegrini, 2000, 2002; Ellis and Bjorklund, 2005; Jarvis, 2006;
Pellegrini and Bjorklund, 2004; Smith, 1982) state that the documented sex-differences in
play styles is consistent with the adaptive problems males and females have had to
encounter. Men have had to prove themselves as a strong, safe, protective and worthy
partner for the females with whom he wanted to produce offspring (Ellis, 1992). This
would, in the past, imply the willingness to take great risks (Kruger and Nesse, 2004;
Wilson and Daly, 1985). This includes both travelling away from the home base for
hunting and fighting wild animals, and protecting the partner and offspring from enemies
and other “hostile forces of nature.Women, on the other hand, would have to be more
cautious to survive and secure reproductive success, and then serve as the primary
caregivers for their children staying at the home base performing gathering tasks. Sex-
differences in the urge for risky play could possibly be viewed as an adaptation to enhance
competencies important for survival in the history of evolution. Differences in fearfulness
or anxiety, and the need to reduce both fear and anxiety more in males, may be part of this
(Kruger and Nesse, 2004; Wilson and Daly, 1985).
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General Discussion
Anxiety etiology has been based on, e.g., Mowrer’s two-factor theory including
both classical and operant conditioning (see also Rachman, 1977, for a conditioning
approach). This is no longer considered a likely explanation. At least the associative
pathways might need to be expanded with non-associative models (Poulton and Menzies,
2002a). The isomorphic principle of how pathogenesis and cure need to be similar
processes has been typical within much psychotherapeutic theory since the effective
treatment of anxiety has been learning theory-based, many have expected conditioning to
be the etiology of anxiety. At the same time researchers such as Poulton and Menzies
(2002a, 2002b), and Kendler, Myers and Prescott (2002) provide strong evidence that
suggests that anxiety appears through largely maturational or dispositional mechanisms. On
the other hand, anxiety reduction seems to be due to coping and interaction with the
naturally fear-generating stimulus. The naturally developed fear seems to be alleviated
through normal habituation or coping experiences, somehow. We suggest that risky play
provides the exact conditions that will be most curative of any anxiety, the exaggerated fear
reactions to stimulus or situations that the child in reality is able to master. These are: the
motivation to seek out the stimulus (exposure/experience) and to learn how to master the
stimuli while being motivated by a positive (thrilling) rather than aversive emotion
resulting in coping/mastery experiences. Note that thrill reduction occurs after a period of
careful but thrill motivated negotiation of the threatening condition and the learning and
mastery of the necessary skills involved. In other words, the child starts off with a natural
inhibition toward situations that the child developmentally is not mature enough to cope
with, but this fear is reduced as the child develops mental and physical skills and exposes
itself to the stimulus motivated by thrilling emotions, while learning how to master these
Children do not consciously consider the immediate or deferred benefits of their
play while playing or while deciding what to play. Enjoyment or thrill of play is basically
the motivational basis for play among children (Smith, 1982), and children engage in risky
play because they enjoy doing it (Sandseter, 2007c, 2009). Sutton-Smith (1997) states that
there is no contradiction between assuming that a child’s personal reason for play is an
intrinsic motivation to experience positive emotional stages such as arousal, excitement,
fun, merriment, joy, ecstatic feelings, mastery and competence, and assuming that the
effects of such play are useful for other kinds of adaptations such as enhancing survival and
the child’s fitness. This corresponds to hominins procreating through history, not primarily
due to the conscious desire to have offspring, but due to sexual drives and the pleasures of
sex. Still, several important questions remain unanswered: It is important not to
prematurely conclude that risky play is due to specific adaptations or plays an adaptive role
in normal development. Other explanations are possible: Are the motivational and
perceptual mental systems that make children experience this form of stimulation activating
and thrilling by-products (Gould and Lewontin, 1979; see also Buss, Haselton,
Shackelford, Bleske, and Wakefield, 1998; Kennair, 2002) of our mental mechanisms? Or
might they be remnants of systems that, e.g., made our tree dwelling ancestors feel
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motivated to climb and jump from branch to branch? Would this have consequences? And
is it still a system that needs stimulating in order to ensure normal development?
Few deprivation studies have been conducted to try to reveal the developmental
importance of different kinds of play. This has been more common in animal play literature
(Bjorklund and Pellegrini, 2002). Still, some studies of the effects of depriving children of
locomotor play have occurred. The results from these studies were consistent in showing
that deprivation led to increased levels of locomotor play when the opportunities for this
kind of play were re-established (Byers and Walker, 1995; Pellegrini and Davis, 1993;
Pellegrini, Huberty, and Jones, 1995). Further research would be necessary to consider the
effects of preventing risky play. If this indeed resulted in an increased tendency toward
fearfulness or neuroticism this would provide further evidence of the fear reducing effect of
risky play.
We have been informed by a modular approach, and posited specific mechanisms
for specific types of risky play. One might object that a more domain general approach
might also be possible to explain such behavior. We do believe that heights, speed and play
near dangerous elements probably use many of the same mechanisms, and although there
probably are different mechanisms involved in rough and tumble play, probably there also
are common processes such as the thrilling emotion. We do posit at that level that this
process is rather general. Also there may be evolved individual differences (see Buss and
Hawley, 2011) that regulate this process at a general level, such as poor self-regulation and
inhibitory abilities that both reflect general universal development of the prefrontal cortex
as well as individual differences, as well as meta-cognitive processes involved in the
overestimation of abilities to manage risky situations.
This article suggests that one of the most important aspects of risky play may be the
anti-phobic effect of exposure to typical fear eliciting stimuli and contexts, in the
combination of positive emotion and relative safety and with autonomous coping behavior.
As such risky play mirrors effective cognitive behavioral therapy of anxiety (Allen and
Rapee, 2005). Current research on the etiology of anxiety suggests that anxieties develop
due to both genetic and environmental factors (Allen and Rapee, 2005). The specific genes
have not been identified, but neither are we aware of what environmental factors cause
anxiety disorders (e.g. Kendler et al., 2002). It seems that the genetic factors cause
individual differences, and apart from the phobias most anxiety disorders do not seem
functional from an evolutionary perspective (Kennair, 2007). The evidence that phobias
seem to develop rather independently of learning experiences (these have at least been
difficult to document to date), does not mean that learning may not be a way of reducing or
even curing anxiety. Actually graded exposure and learning to think less negative and more
mastery oriented thoughts about the anxiety producing stimuli have shown to be the most
effective treatment of child anxieties (Allen and Rapee, 2005). It is possible that risky play
is a natural way of reducing many phobic reactions that are functional when the child has a
low level of mastery of the fear provoking conditions. Thus adaptive fear, necessary to
keep the child safe and alert and careful when learning to cope with potentially dangerous
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situations for young children, is countered by the positive emotions that are typical of the
adaptively thrilling experience involved in moving the boundaries of what is safe and what
is dangerous. Research has shown that anxious children may elicit overprotective behavior
from others, such as parents and caretakers, and that this reinforces the child’s perception
of threat and decreases their perception of controlling the danger (Allen and Rapee, 2005).
Overprotection might thus result in exaggerated levels of anxiety. Overprotection through
governmental control of playgrounds and exaggerated fear of playground accidents might
thus result in an increase of anxiety in society. We might need to provide more stimulating
environments for children, rather than hamper their development.
This means that some forms of risky play may be developmentally adequate
species-specific and universal anti-phobic processes. For other types of risky play, the
motivational systems may be more archaic systems or they may be due to by-products of
our perceptual systems that provide a mixed activation that the children perceive as
thrilling and hedonic. The different analyses of function give different testable hypotheses
of the psychological mechanisms and motivational systems involved in the different types
of play. From a modular approach one would not expect to find the same mechanisms
involved in all different types of behavior.
If these ideas are correct, this might not only be about prevention or increasing
anxiety at the population level, but also relevant for the improvement of treatment of young
children with anxiety. Treatment might profit from having more than merely a habituation
perspective; relaxation (e.g., Öst, 1987) may counter anxiety, but it may be more important
at least for many young patients to experience more thrilling and coping emotions. A
treatment program for young patients that uses thrilling emotions to cure anxiety and
compares it to current best practice cognitive behavioral treatment protocols would test this
Further research into risky play is necessary. Risky behavior is a potential health
hazard. At the same time, an understanding of why and when children will engage in risky
behavior is important not least if such behavior in the long run is beneficial to their
normal development. It seems that risky behavior is maintained despite adults’ attempts at
making children’s environments safer. From both a safety perspective as well as from a
normal psychological developmental perspective an understanding of the function of risky
play and the different psychological mechanisms and motivational systems involved are
important to understand. This will be essential in the world wide discussion on demands for
children’s play safety, by a growing number of researchers regarded as drawing near
overprotection, and the balance between such safety requirements and children’s needs for
opportunities to play freely in challenging, stimulating and developing environments. Even
though highly active and risk taking children experience more (albeit minor) injuries, this
article suggests that these children will benefit psychologically from natural adaptive fear
alleviation and the anti-phobic effect of risky play.
Acknowledgements: Thanks to Bruce Ellis and his group for comments on an earlier
version of this article. We also thank the anonymous reviewers for many helpful and
insightful suggestions that improved the arguments and discussion of this article.
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Received 28 December 2010; Revision submitted 1 June 2011; Accepted 8 June 2011
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... Risky play is a form of play which thrills and excites children and, at the same time, involves a risk of physical challenges including great heights, high speed, dangerous tools, dangerous elements, rough and tumble play, and opportunities to get lost Sandseter, 2007). While some studies report that risky play causes adverse outcomes such as injury (Ball, 2002;Potts, Martinez, & Dedmon, 1995), other voices highlight the detrimental effect of over-protecting children and argue that risky play opportunities support children's developmental needs (Harper, 2017;Little & Wyver, 2008;Sandseter, 2009a;Sandseter & Kennair, 2011). For example, some of the developmental advantages related to risky play include opportunities to be challenged (Waite, 2010), develop risk perception and competence Lavrysen et al., 2017), and refine motor fitness (Fjørtoft, 2001). ...
... For example, some of the developmental advantages related to risky play include opportunities to be challenged (Waite, 2010), develop risk perception and competence Lavrysen et al., 2017), and refine motor fitness (Fjørtoft, 2001). Risky play can also engage relevant evolutionary mechanisms like identifying risks, which may reduce phobias or other limitations that appear later (Sandseter & Kennair, 2011). For these reasons, despite the concern for physical injuries, the developmental benefits of children's risky play cannot be understated. ...
... Risky play benefits extend beyond children's physical activity by engaging self-regulation mechanisms like risk competencies (Brussoni, Olsen, Pike, & Sleet, 2012;Lavrysen et al., 2017). Depriving children of age-appropriate risktaking experiences may impede their normal development because they may not learn to regulate feelings such as fear, discomfort, and unhappiness (Alexander, Frohlich, & Fusco, 2014;Sandseter & Kennair, 2011). Children that repeatedly face challenges posed by riskier play in naturalistic settings will have more opportunities to learn, practice, and be aware of the rules they need to follow in these settings to prevent any potential harm. ...
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We investigated the dynamic relationships between children’s risky play attempts in a naturalistic setting, their injury experience, and their self-control ability. To test this, we administered surveys to 862 mothers of 3- to 5-year-olds. The results showed that children who tried more diverse types of risky play experienced more injuries in naturalistic settings than those who tried fewer types of risky play. Children with a high level of self-control experienced fewer injuries than those with a low level of self-control. Also, children who frequently played in naturalistic settings demonstrated higher self-control. We conclude that when children play in naturalistic settings, those who enjoy trying various types of risky play may be exposed to more danger than those who do not. However, in the long term, children’s experience playing in naturalistic settings can enhance their self-control ability, which mitigates the chance of them getting injured.
... Ten years ago, Sandseter and Kennair (2011) suggested that risky play may be seen as an evolved adaptation that emotionally motivates children to seek out previously challenging situations and behaviours as they mature physically and develop psychologically. To achieve this, children need the motivation to seek out and expose themselves to different phenomena and situations that cease to be dangerous to them as they mature. ...
... Risky play, as used in Sandseter and Kennair (2011), was defined as 'thrilling and exciting forms of physical play that involve uncertainty and a risk of physical injury' (Sandseter, 2010b). This definition rested on six categories of risky play (Sandseter, 2007): (1) play with great heights, (2) play with high speed, (3) play with dangerous tools, (4) play near dangerous elements, (5) rough-and-tumble play, and (6) play where children go exploring alone. ...
... In this theoretical paper, we aim to expand the narrow focus on anxiety and physical risk from the original paper (Sandseter & Kennair, 2011) and cover three biopsychosocial levels of risky play: (1) mental health and emotion regulation, (2) social functioning and challenging norms, and (3) physical health and development. The aim is to suggestbased on the original paper and extant researchthat a broader understanding of risk beyond physical danger and considering emotions other than anxiety provides a more general model: Children have evolved to develop an interest in several specific risky play domains, motivated similarly by thrilling emotions and mastery of new and exciting psychosocial domains. ...
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The focus of this theoretical paper is to explore three biopsychosocial levels of children’s risky play: (1) mental health and emotion regulation, (2) social functioning and challenging norms, and (3) physical health and development. As such, in this paper, we expand Sandseter’s and Kennair’s focus in their original article in 2011 on the evolved function of risky play as an anti-phobic mechanism, and consider other types of risk than physical risks and other types of play, including other types of emotional regulation than anxiety reduction. Motivated by the thrilling emotions involved in risky play, one matures in competency and masters new and more complex psychosocial settings. Play with emotional, social, and physical risk may have evolved to increase the child’s psychosocial competency here-and-now, but also train them for future adult contexts. We recommend that future research consider how risky play in all contexts may have a similar function.
... Moreover, there are indications that risky play in early childhood has a positive impact on the development of children's own risk management skills [7,13]. Researchers also suggest that the ability to handle risk is a favorable evolutionary trait [14] and that outdoor risky play offers several positive health effects for children such as resilience, social skills, physical activity, well-being and involvement [15,16]. In addition, there are indications that the lack of risky play and autonomy increases the likelihood of anxiety, both in childhood [17][18][19][20] and subsequently in adolescence and adulthood [14,[21][22][23][24][25]. ...
... Researchers also suggest that the ability to handle risk is a favorable evolutionary trait [14] and that outdoor risky play offers several positive health effects for children such as resilience, social skills, physical activity, well-being and involvement [15,16]. In addition, there are indications that the lack of risky play and autonomy increases the likelihood of anxiety, both in childhood [17][18][19][20] and subsequently in adolescence and adulthood [14,[21][22][23][24][25]. ...
BACKGROUND Research indicates that risky play benefits children’s risk assessment and risk management skills, and offers several positive health effects such as resilience, social skills, physical activity, well-being and involvement. There are also indications that the lack of risky play and autonomy increases the likelihood of anxiety. Despite its well-documented importance, and the willingness of children to engage in risky play, this type of play is increasingly restricted. Assessing long-term effects of risky play has been problematic because of ethical issues with conducting studies designed to allow or encourage children to take physical risks with the potential of injury. OBJECTIVE The Virtual Risk Management (ViRMa) project aims to examine children’s development of risk management skills through risky play. To accomplish this, the project first aims to develop and validate ethically appropriate data collection tools such as virtual reality (VR), eye-tracking and motion capturing, psychometric scales and questionnaires to provide insight into how children assess and handle risk situations. The project then plans to use these methods to explore how children’s past risky play experiences are associated with their risk management. METHODS The ViRMa project includes three stages. Stage 1 is a method development stage, developing VR scenarios and eye-tracking and motion capturing tools and software to examine children’s dynamic risk management, as well as selecting psychometric scales and developing a questionnaire to examine children’s previous life experience regarding risk. Stage 2 is a pilot study to test and modify the data collections methods developed in stage 1 with 62 children (7-10 years old) and 50 parents. In stage 3, the main data collection stage, 500 7–10-year-old children and their parents will be recruited to explore children’s risk management skills and the association between risk management and children’s risk willingness, motor competence and their past risky play experiences. RESULTS Five schools were recruited to participate in stage 3, the main data collection stage. Recruitment of children and parents from the first school started in December 2022, and as of January 2022 178 children and their parents have consented to participate. CONCLUSIONS The ViRMa project will increase our understanding of how children’s characteristics, upbringing, and previous experiences influence their learning and ability to handle challenges. Through development and use of cutting-edge technology and previously developed measures to describe aspects of the child’s past experiences, the current project addresses crucial topics related to children’s health and development. Such knowledge may guide pedagogical questions, development of educational, injury prevention, and other health-related interventions, and reveal essential areas for focus in future studies. It may also impact how risk is addressed in crucial societal institutions like the family, early childhood education and schools.
... Parents, professionals, and society in general have an interest in giving all children the best circumstances for a good upbringing by enhancing resilience, physical and mental health among the children (Kvello, 2016, Obel & Poulsen, 2019. By working with risky play, preschool teachers can contribute to supporting and creating resilience in children, while countering the apparent culture of being too careful, which has emerged in the pedagogical practice (Sandseter & Kennair, 2011, Lykkegaard, 2015. By empowering children to manage their own risks in a controlled environment, they can learn vital skills and gain the experience needed to face the complexity and unpredictability of the world (Gill 2007). ...
The objective of this qualitative study was to investigate the pedagogic and didactic practise of outdoor kindergarten environment as compared to conventional kindergarten environment in rotation kindergartens. Qualitative data were collected in four kindergartens through eight semi-structured interviews and observations of activities among the children and preschool teachers. Four themes emerged from the analyzed interviews: 1. Imagination and immersion, 2. Risky games 3. Motor skills, and 4. The role of the preschool teacher. This study highlights that the children moved more versatilely in the outdoor environment. There were greater opportunities for gross motor games and risky games. In addition, there were more time for immersion and imagination in the outdoor environment.
... Supporting this view, studies have shown that, the experiences of children in free play in the outdoors were influential on their thinking and problem-solving skills. Researchers observed improved socialization, problem-solving, focus, self-regulation, creativity and self-confidence in children (Sandseter, 2011;Stephenson, 2003;Little & Wyver, 2008;Johnson et al., 2010;Little et al., 2011;Brussoni et al., 2017). Furthermore, there is a positive effect of spending time in natural environment areas with young children as they develop, on their academic performance, and environmental awareness (Chawla, 1999;Faber Taylor & Kuo, 2006;Kuo, Bacaicoa, & Sullivan, 1998;Louv, 2005Louv, /2008Tanner, 1980;Wells, 2000;Wells & Lekies, 2006). ...
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The subject of the article is the role of nature in learning as an essential part of the Montessori Philosophy in early childhood education. This article highlights the use of nature-based activities within Montessori’s pedagogical perspective for including content about the natural world in early childhood settings. In this paper, it is aimed to increase the awareness of learning through nature on child development and to disseminate nature-based practices used in line with the Montessori approach in preschools. Firstly, the role of nature as an educational tool is described, followed by an understanding of nature pedagogy and its educational value according to Maria Montessori. Additionally, the article reviews the implementation of nature-based learning activities as an integral part of the educational work in Montessori schools. In this educational stream, nature-related work stands as the main methodical means for early childhood education and supporting the development of children. Nature in itself serves as a kind of special resonance and restorative effect that can help children understand the world and impart meaning to their lives. Subsequently, recommendations for nature-based practices that can be applied in preschools were presented in light of the Montessori philosophy. Keywords: nature-based education; Montessori education; role of nature; nature-based activities
... Чини се да је ризично понашање присутно упркос покушајима одраслих да дечију околину учине безбеднијом (Sandseter B,H,E., Kennair L,E,O., 2011). Групна одговорност локалних власти, служби за урбано планирање и других друштвених група јесте да унапреде паркове у насељима и створе осећај безбедности како би охрабрили родитеље да дозволе деци више самосталног кретања. ...
... Therefore, there should be consideration of proper antiseptic modalities to prevent and treat diseases and disorders. New antibiotics must be developed, but resistance can be generated quite quickly, so many researchers have become reticent about their development [168,217,218]. As we all know, honey is used for its antimicrobial and wound-healing properties. ...
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Honey has been used for therapeutic and nutritional purposes since ancient times. It was considered one of the essential medical assets in wound healing. According to research, honeybees have significant antibacterial, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antitumor, and wound-healing properties. Lately, scientific researchers have focused on apitherapy, using bee products to protect and strengthen the immune system. Since honey is the most important natural product rich in minerals, proteins, and vitamins, it has been intensively used in such therapies. Honey has gained significant consideration because of the beneficial role of its antioxidant compounds, such as enzymes, proteins , amino and organic acids, polyphenols, and carotenoids, but mainly due to flavonoids and phenolic acids. It has been proven that phenolic compounds are responsible for honey's biological activity and that its physicochemical properties, antioxidants, and antimicrobial potential are significant for human health. The review also presents some mechanisms of action and the medical applications of honey, such as wound healing dressings, skin grafts, honey-based nanofibers, and cochlear implants, as the most promising wound healing tools. This extensive review has been written to highlight honey's applications in medicine; its composition with the most important bioactive compounds also illustrates its synergistic effect with other natural products having remarkable therapeutic properties in wound healing.
Rationale: Adventurous play, where children take age-appropriate risks involving uncertainty, fear, and thrill, is positively associated with children's physical health, mental health, and development. There is growing concern that children's access to and engagement with adventurous play opportunities are declining in Westernised countries, which may have negative implications for children's health. Objective: The current study aimed to ascertain the facilitators of and barriers to children's adventurous play most identified by parents in Britain and to determine whether these differ across socio-demographic and geographic groups. Methods: This study analysed the responses of a nationally representative sample of 1919 parents who took part in the British Children's Play Survey. Two open-ended questions asked parents to identify what they perceive to be the facilitators of and barriers to their child's adventurous play. A quantitative coding scheme, developed using the qualitative framework identified by Oliver et al. (2022), was applied to parents' responses. Results: A diversity in the most identified facilitators and barriers was found, including concerns about the risk of injury from adventurous play and the safety of society, positive attitudes about the benefits of adventurous play, as well as factors related to child attributes. In general, these were consistently identified across different socio-demographic and geographic groups, although some differences were found in barriers. Conclusions: The findings of this research support the identification of key targets for those working with parents to improve children's adventurous play opportunities and ultimately their physical and mental health. Future research should seek to design and tailor interventions by asking parents about the support they would value.
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Children engage in risky play even though there is a chance of failure and negative experiences. They climb a tree to feel joy, even though it is safer to stand still on the ground. The question is how taking risks can be good for experiences, development, and learning. This chapter discusses the potential benefits of engaging in risky play, focusing on the positive and thrilling experiences children may gain, on developing life mastery skills, and on physical and psychological developmental benefits, as well as how children through risk-taking in play get better at managing real-life risks.
Outdoor and nature experiences including play have been shown to be beneficial for children's physical, cognitive, social and emotional development. Parents/carers play an important role in encouraging or impeding their child's access to the outdoor environment and participation in outdoor play. The COVID-19 pandemic and associated restrictions on free movement and social interactions placed an unprecedented pressure on families to manage the drastic change in their daily routines. This paper reports findings from two combined data sets generated in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic and provides a deeper understanding of the interconnected nature of how contextual factors influence parenting processes and outcomes relating to young children's outdoor and nature experiences and subsequent child health. Findings have the potential to inform the messaging of existing outdoor play policies and the content of new interventions aiming to promote the exposure of children to the natural outdoor environment.
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This paper focuses upon the developmental role of Rough and Tumble (R&T) play with particular attention to the narratives that children use to underpin such activities, and to gender differences within these. The empirical research focused upon the R&T play of children in the early years department of a suburban primary school in Northern England. The children's playtime activities were ethnographically observed over a period of eighteen calendar months, encompassing five school terms. The effects of evolution, biology and culture are recognized in the approach taken to the analysis of data. Findings indicated that the narratives underpinning R&T play were socially complex and highly gendered, and that mixed gender R&T play in particular could be theorized to mirror and simplify aspects of complex, gendered adult interaction.
Purpose of review In recent years, there has been a surge of interest in evolutionary approaches to the understanding of human nature. Although there are many different approaches to the evolutionary study of mind and behaviour within mainstream academic psychology, Evolutionary Psychology is one that has developed a theoretically rigorous research programme. Thus far, evolutionary studies of psychopathology have not produced a coherent, unifying model. This review is intended both to assess recent research on evolutionary psychopathology, and to consider structuring such research by bringing Evolutionary Psychology and evolutionary psychopathology closer together. Recent findings Modern evolutionary psychopathology is a young field, and conceptual issues are much debated: there is still clear resistance to the adoption of an evolutionary perspective. Also, most evolution-oriented research on psychopathology is mainly theoretical, generating hypotheses, few of which are being empirically tested. Nonetheless, this theoretical work is very interesting and creative, based, in most cases, on general, scientifically sound biological theories. There also seems to be a trend toward empirical studies. Summary Research on psychopathology from an evolutionary perspective is generating many interesting hypotheses, and promises to integrate data and theories from biological psychiatry, cognitive neuroscience and clinical psychology in a truly biopsychosocial theory. A few theoretical points are already making their way into clinical practice in the form of clinical heuristics; alas, this is probably premature from a strictly empirical viewpoint. The efficacy of these interventions will need to be documented. The potential of this research at present is mainly to broaden our theoretical understanding of human nature, including the nature of psychopathology.
Are children with attention-deficit/ hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) more prone to accidents and injuries than children who do not have the disorder? Studies of children who have had accidents and associated injuries implicate hyperactive, impulsive, and risk-taking behavior as more frequent behavioral characteristics of this population than comparison groups. Although only a small set of studies has examined accident risk in children with ADHD, most indicate that ADHD children are more accident prone than control children. They are also more likely to have injuries such as bone fractures and accidental poisonings. Studies of driving-related accidents have clearly shown that young adults with ADHD have significantly more crashes, more destructive accidents, and more speeding tickets and license suspensions than comparison groups. Other factors that may contribute further to accident risk among children and adults with ADHD include motor clumsiness and oppositional defiant disorder and conduct disorder comorbidities. Prevention and early intervention efforts are in order to reduce ADHD-associated accident risks.