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Let Kids Play With Fire—Really



Cari Donaldson - published on 08/31/14

Risky play helps them mature and might help adults grow closer to God.

A friend of mine recently shared an article on a subject that would have many parents clutching their pearls and drawing their children close—a scientific examination of “risky play” in children, and how it is important from a developmental perspective.

The article defined “risky play” as:

1. Exploring heights
2. Experiencing high speed
3. Handling dangerous tools
4. Being near dangerous elements (fire/water)
5. Rough and tumble play
6. Wandering without adult supervision

The theory is that if children are allowed to participate in these activities at their own—and not their parents’—time schedule, they actually become better judges of their actual ability, and are better able to manage risky situations in the future.

In contrast, children who are actively sheltered from “risky play” by Helicopter Parents are less able to form age-appropriate responses to fear-inducing situations, and instead respond with levels of anxiety not appropriate for their maturity levels.

I have to admit, this article really spoke to my philosophy of parenting. My kids are tree climbers and bike daredevils. They use sharp knives and gas flames in the kitchen, and tear on down the gully in our backyard on a zipline. We did, at one point, even have a child who had learned how to unlock the difficult backdoor locks, walk down the same gully, navigate the hiking trails, and let himself into a neighbor’s yard to play on their jungle gym. That one we put a stop to, but the rest we encourage. Will they get hurt? Probably. One child (the aforementioned wanderer) has a chipped tooth from jumping off an older brother’s top bunk. 

So far, by the grace of God, no broken bones, though. No concussions. In fact, the only ER trip we’ve ever had to take was for my husband, who severed part of two fingers in a woodshop accident.

Like father, like offspring, I guess.

I know our parenting philosophy upsets lots of the neighbors. One of my kids’ friends isn’t allowed to come over and play anymore because my daughter got a bow and arrow set for Christmas one year. Now the parents don’t want their child playing in a house with weapons. I can understand their motives. I just don’t think they’re ultimately what’s best.

After reading the article, the more I thought about it, the more it reminded me of people’s relationship with God. Not surprising, really, for a God who wants us to call him “Daddy” and claims us as adopted sons and daughters. But it helped put an awful lot of things into perspective.

There is that segment of religious believers—of all faiths, probably, not just Christians—who want their relationship with God to be that of a Helicopter Parent and Protected Child. They want to go to worship service, feel warm and fuzzy, be told that everything they’re doing is good and awesome and worthy of a trophy, and to be sheltered from all those scary, risky things out there.

The problem is, God isn’t a Helicopter Parent, and so when fear-inducing situations occur, whether tragedy or injury or loss or pain, the Protected Child doesn’t know how to respond. There has been little to no development of crisis management through risky play.

And what does “risky play” look like in a spiritual context? I think the list may look something like this:

1. Exploring theology
2. Learning the history of your religion
3. Asking the “why” of your dogma
4. Being near non-believers
5. Rough and tumble, no holds barred prayer life
6. Wandering with the Holy Spirit

All of these items are, to some degree, risky situations for the believer. But I think that by breaking free of our concept of God as Helicopter Parent, we can start to explore these areas in ways appropriate to our spiritual maturity and, by doing so, become the sort of people God created us to be.

Cari Donaldson is the author of Pope Awesome and Other Stories: How I Found God, Had Kids, and Lived to Tell the Tale. She married her high school sweetheart, had six children with him, and now spends her days homeschooling, writing, and figuring out how to stay one step ahead of her child army. She blogs about faith and family life at

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