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Calling all brave young things: new study on how risky play affects kids’ emotional wellbeing

Photo credit: Erin Song

A Sussex psychologist is leading a new study to explore the effect of adventurous play on children’s emotional wellbeing.  Dr Kathryn Lester from the Psychology School at the University of Sussex is inviting children to take part. She’s working in collaboration with the Sussex Wildlife Trust as well as with Dr Lee Gettler from the University of Notre Dame in the United States.

In the study, which will start in February at the Sussex Wildlife Trust’s Woods Mill nature reserve in Henfield, the team will safely take saliva samples from the children, aged between 3-5 years old, before and after play sessions. This will measure levels of hormones which indicate how children respond to challenging and demanding experiences.

The study will investigate how children’s stress systems respond to adventurous play, and whether differences in their stress hormone levels are related to their personality, emotional wellbeing, or parenting.

Dr Kathryn Lester from the University of Sussex is working with Sue Curnock from the Sussex Wildlife Trust. Sue is the coordinator for the Trust’s popular ‘Nature Tots’ programme which introduces 3-5 year old children to nature.  Dr Lester is looking for families to take part in play sessions at Woods Mill Nature Reserve where children are encouraged to leap across logs, tight-rope walk between trees, jump in muddy ditches, saw branches and climb trees. 

Parents will complete simple questionnaires asking about their own and their child’s emotional wellbeing, their parenting practices, and their child’s previous adventurous play experiences.

Dr Lester said, Senior Lecturer in Developmental Psychology, at the University of Sussex, said:

“When children play in adventurous and risky ways (such as climbing trees, using adult tools, playing out of sight from adults) where there is the possibility of physical injury or psychological harm, they experience feelings of fear and excitement, and thrill and adrenaline. During our study, children will experience risk and challenge in a relatively safe environment, where they can master physical skills, and build confidence while learning about fear, uncertainty, risk and ways of coping.

“They may also learn to interpret the internal sensations that often accompany exhilarating, and challenging experiences, such as a fast heart rate, in a thrilling and exciting rather than fearful way. This learning may help to protect children from feeling overwhelmed and from experiencing feelings of fear and anxiety when faced with future threatening, or uncertain situations.”

The adventurous play sessions will run from February 2020 and throughout the year at Woods Mill Nature Reserve.

To find out how to take part in the study please visit:

Last updated: Monday, 27 January 2020

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