Outdoor risky play for all

Risky play is a natural part of children’s play, and children often seek out opportunities for engaging in challenging and so called risky play. Risky play can be defined as a thrilling and exciting activity that involves a risk of physical injury, and play that provides opportunities for challenge, testing limits, exploring boundaries and learning about injury risk (Sandseter (2007; Little & Wyver, 2008). Activities such as climbing, sliding, balancing, jumping from heights and hanging upside down can be considered as risky (Tovey, 2010, pg. 79). It is important that both staff and parents are aware of the importance of risky play and that safety policies and regulations do not get in the way of this vital form of play.

Why risky play is important

Involvement in risky play gives children the opportunity to access risks and manage situations. Even very young children are taking risks, which in turn lead to new learning experiences, such as walking, running, climbing and riding a bike. Each of these activities involves some risks but they are necessary for the development of children and risky play is not different. Risky play gives children the opportunity to extend their limits and learn life skills. Success and failure provide children with the motivation to try again and work out different ways of doing things (Tovey, 2010, pg. 82). Stephenson (2003) suggests it is this motivation to master a new challenge, and the excitement felt when it is finally mastered that drives children to engage in risky play. Coster and Gleeve’s (2008) also found that the feelings associated with risky play such as fun, enjoyment, excitement, thrill, pride, and achievement were reasons children often give for engaging in risky play.

Movements that are often associated with risky play, such as, swinging, climbing, rolling, hanging, sliding, are not only fun for children but also essential for their motor skills, balance, coordination, and body awareness. Children who do not engage in such movements are more likely to be clumsy, feel uncomfortable in their own body, have poor balance, and a fear of movement. The role of a teacher is to create a play environment where children can engage in movements that fulfill their sensory needs (Greenland, 2006, pgs. 189 – 190).

Declining opportunities for outdoor risky play

In the last few centuries there have been an increasing number of discussions about children’s safety in play environments. As a result of this, risk-taking during play has become increasingly regulated, managed and controlled and even removed all together (Tovey, 2010, pg. 81). It is assumed that by removing risks, children will be able to play in a safer environment. This approach however fails to acknowledge risk-taking as a positive feature of children’s play and learning (Tovey, 2011, pg. 86). According to Sandseter (2010a, pg. 8) this safety- obsessed society will result in children whom are less physically fit, have little control over motor skills, and are less able to manage risk.

Social and environmental factors are also impacting children’s opportunities for outdoor risky play. Today’s children, especially in Western counties, spend more time watching television, and playing indoors than they do being physically active outdoors (McCurdy, Winterbottom, Mehta & Roberts, 2010, pg. 103). Parents are often too concerned about traffic, the threat of kidnapping, and other dangers to allow their children to ride bicycles, play outdoor games or explore outdoor areas. Instead children are limited to playing in their back gardens or local parks (Little & Wyver, 2008; Brussoni, Olsen, Pike & Sleet, 2012, pg. 3138). Furthermore, researchers argue that these traditional local parks do not offer enough risky play opportunities for children (Little, Wyver & Gibson, 2011 pg. 129). Sandseter (2009a) however disagrees with this statement, suggesting that children will search out risky play opportunities in any play environment.

Preschool teachers’ views on risky play

Due to higher regulations and increasing concerns about children’s safety, many preschool teachers believe it is difficult to find the right balance between allowing children to encounter risks and challenges in the playground while at the same time preventing serious injuries (Sandseter, 2010a, pg. 8). A study by Sandseter (2009b, pgs. 6 & 12) in which she observed how preschool staff deal with risk-taking in Norwegian preschools, revealed four strategies teachers use when dealing with risky play, these are, restricting/constraining, keeping a close eye, not present/distance and contributing/initiating. Sandseter found that although some of the staff allowed the children to continue with risky situations, others made decisions for the children that ended up with the children stopping the activity.

Further research (Stan & Humberstone, 2011, pg. 213) found that teachers often control outdoor activities that they perceived as risky. As a result of this the children felt disempowered and were not able to work out how to deal with risky situations. Tovey (2011, pg. 86) found that while some teachers support and encourage risky play, many feel anxious and reluctant to allow children to take risks for fear of accidents. Concerns over injury and worry about getting the blame for accidents have an impact on preschool teachers’ ability to provide worthwhile experiences through risky play. An article by New, Mardell and Robinson (2005) found teachers tend to constantly supervise children’s activities, or discourage potentially risky activities. The restrictions put on children’s play are often based on the adult’s perception of what is dangerous or risky (Sandseter, 2011, pg. 5), rather than individual abilities or giving the children the freedom to judge situations for themselves.

Making risky play accessible for all children

The Icelandic preschool curriculum (2011, pg. 21), states that preschool activities should encourage health and well being, in an environment that contributes to a healthy lifestyle and improves motor skills. Outdoor risky play contributes to all of these things and more. The main concern when it comes to risky play and children seems to be safety. Parents want their children to be safe, and teachers do not want the blame for the children in their care coming to harm. As research previously mentioned shows, a failure to provide children with risky play experiences could cause problems with their health, well being, and development at a later stage. It is therefore vital that preschools provide children with an outdoor area where they can engage in positive risky play and risk-taking opportunities, challenges and excitement.

The key is to create a well-managed and supportive environment where all the staff have the same opinions and desires where risky play is concerned. There are a number of questions preschool staff can explore to help them create such an environment: how do we balance the benefits of risky play against potential injury? How do we introduce challenges whilst keeping hazards to a minimum? How can we offer children adventure but also keep them safe? It is the role of the staff to use their own professional judgement to find the answer that is appropriate for the children and families within the preschool (Richardson, 2013). Staff that feel uncomfortable with allowing children to engage in risky activities could benefit from learning about risk management and the learning about the value of risky play.

It is important that preschool staff raise awareness about risky play for parents. Communication between staff and parents is the key to promoting the benefits of risky activities. Teachers should explain how their children are learning and developing through the activities they are involved in, for instance discussing how well a child can balance now compared to a few weeks ago or how strong the child’s legs are becoming because of climbing activities. This will reassure parents that their children are developing and learning in an environment that is exciting and challenging for their children, but where unnecessary risk is managed. If the staff are confident about the risky play policy within the setting it will help ease any parental anxiety (Richardson, 2013).

Within a preschool setting there is usually a mixed age of children using the same outdoor area. This means that teachers must think about the setup of the area and ensure that it supports all the children’s different ages and abilities. Babies and toddlers should be located in an area where they can crawl and explore away from older children who are riding bikes or kicking balls. Areas for young children should include various textures, hills and slopes for them to explore. Defining areas with boundaries is a good idea, for instance using bushes, tyres or logs to create separate areas for ball games, bike riding, rough and tumble play, quite play, and an area for the less mobile children. If teachers are concerned that young children could be injured for instance by moving swings, then a visible barrier around the swing area could help to enclose it. This means that the older children wishing to engage in the risky activity of swinging high and fast on a swing can do so, while the likelihood of injury to other children is reduced (Richardson, 2013).

Research (Morrongiello, Zdzieborsky & Normand, 2010, pg. 328) suggests that risk-taking is perceived differently depending on if the child is a boy or girl. This research on parental reactions to sons’ versus daughters’ risky play and behaviour, found that when daughters engaged in risky behaviour, parents focused on safety and education about risks, whereas when sons behaved in the same way the parents focused on discipline rather than safety. This shows that parents have a different reaction to risky behaviour and play depending on whether the child is a boy or girl. In another study (Little, 2010, pg. 325) the girls were more wary of engaging in risky activities that might be beyond their skill level, whereas the boys felt that they were able to attempt all the activities and that none of them presented a challenge. This suggests that girls feel less confident engaging in risky play and a reason for this could be due to the reactions of others. This research suggests that teachers need to be aware of their own and others’ perceptions about risky play and gender, taking care to promote risky play to both girls and boys and allowing both genders to have equal access to risky activities.

Teachers praise and encourage children differently depending on their gender. Girls are more likely than boys to be praised for being neat, quiet, calm, and encouraged to engage in domestic play and quiet activities, such as puzzles or painting. On the other hand boys are likely to be praised for thinking independently, being active and encouraged to engage in messy play and rough and tumble games (Chapman, e.d.; Naughton & Williams, 2009.). A study by Henderlong and Lepper (2007) found that boys and girls respond differently to praise. Boys appear to respond more to praise that focuses on their achievements. Their research also found that after failing a task, girls are more likely to listen to praise, than their own evaluation (pg. 495 & 497). Teachers need to be aware that they encourage and praise children equally and encourage all children, regardless of gender to become involved in risky play activities.

For some children risky play activities may not come naturally to them, for example children who are withdrawn or isolated, children with a different first language, children who have speech delays, and children with sensory or physical impairments could need additional support or encouragement when engaging in such activities. Teachers should observe and assess the children during free play to judge which of them (if any) need addition support with risky activities. Some ways in which a teacher can encourage and support all the children are:

  • To modify the environment as much as possible to meet the needs of each child.
  • Be aware that some children may need longer to feel confident engaging in an activity, such as balancing or climbing.
  • Encourage the children to help each other. Creating a buddy system to encourage co-operation can help.
  • Simplify an activity, e.g. if a child is too anxious to balance on a high branch allow them to gain confidence by beginning on a low branch.

(National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, n.d.).

Accidents can always happen and teachers should recognise this and learn to deal with them. Children need to learn from their actions, and how to keep themselves safe. This means that falling over, slipping, or landing awkwardly, is an important part of play that will help them in the future. Having a positive attitude towards accidents is important to the children. This should be done by talking about what happened and discussing alternatives rather than banning the equipment or activity that resulted in an accident (Richardson, 2013).


Risky play is an invaluable part of childhood. Research shows that not only does it increase children’s physical and motor skills but also teaches them about their own limits, and how to deal with risks in the future. Children´s safety however is an ever increasing issue that some teachers are anxious about. This worry about children injuring themselves (or others) during risky play is preventing some children from having the opportunity to engage in such activities. Thus, it is important that teachers provide children with an environment where they can engage in risky play that is as safe as necessary rather than as safe as possible.

Creating an outdoor risky play policy is a good way to ensure all the preschool staff are on the same level when it comes to allowing children to engage in risky activities. Educating staff and parents about the benefits of risky play is important as this leads to understanding and less anxiety. Using positive language when discussing risky activities can also help parents to realise the benefits of such activities.

Risky play should be available for all children regardless of age, ability, or gender. Teachers should: support and encourage children who are anxious, use positive language when accidents occur, and modify activities to suit a variety of abilities as this ensures that all children can be involved in risky play to some extent. What one child considers risky might not seem so risky for another child, teachers must be away of this and allow children to learn what they themselves are capable of and not feel pushed into doing something they are not sure off. The more children are free to engage in risky play the better they will be at managing risks, judging what they are capable of, and keeping themselves safe. The role of the teacher is to provide a challenging and risky learning environment that will support all children as they become more motivated, curious, able, and adventurous.


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