Adventurous play as an antidote to anxiety

Professor Helen Dodd posted this in Children’s play, health and wellbeing on 02/03/2021

Adventurous play gives an opportunity for children to learn about uncertainty, fear, arousal, and coping. In this blog Professor Helen Dodd shares a summary of her recent paper with Dr Kathryn Lester on adventurous play as a mechanism for reducing risk for childhood anxiety.

When children play in an adventurous way; climbing trees, riding their bikes fast downhill, jumping from rocks – they experience feelings of fear and excitement, thrill and adrenaline. In our recently published conceptual paper, Dr Kathryn Lester and I argue that these experiences, as well as the feelings of fear that accompany them, may provide vital learning opportunities that help prevent the development of problematic anxiety in children.

Understanding anxiety in children

Over the past few decades, a lot of research has been done on anxiety disorders in children, to better understand who is at risk, why they’re at risk and what we can do about it. Although there is still a lot of work to be done, we have a reasonable idea now about the kinds of thoughts, feelings and behaviours that affect children’s likelihood of experiencing anxiety (e.g. intolerance of uncertaintyavoidanceanxiety sensitivitymaladaptive coping). We are confident enough about these mechanisms that researchers have started to develop and evaluate programmes that target them to try to prevent anxiety in children. Many of these programs take a cognitive behavioural approach, for example the Cool Little Kids programme.

In our paper, we draw on our knowledge of cognitive and behavioural factors associated with children’s anxiety to propose that a number of these factors could be targeted by what we call adventurous play.

What adventurous play provides

In the paper we state that adventurous play is ‘child-led play where children experience subjective feelings of excitement, thrill and fear; often this occurs in the context of age appropriate risk-taking’.

Other researchers, like Professor Ellen Sandseter refer to this type of play as risky play. In our opinion these are different names for the same type of play, we simply chose adventurous play because we found that some parents, misinterpreted the meaning of risky play.

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