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The importance of Risky play in the Early Learning Environment

As an early childhood provider our key role is to care for, educate and nurture people's young children. Just like parents, educators have to decide when to give children opportunities, which may expose them to risk and when to reduce their exposure to risk. Naturally educators need to protect children from harm, however it is also important to give them the freedom to explore new experiences and challenges, and venture into areas that isn't one hundred per cent safe.

This is called risky play and it's increasingly becoming recognised as an important developmental opportunity for young children.

Defining risky play

Risky play is a natural part of children's play and is 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).

According to Ellen Beate Hansen Sandseter, a professor at Queen Maud University in Trondheim, Norway, there are six different categories of risky play:

Great heights: Children climb trees and other structures to scary heights, from which they gain a birds-eye view of the world and the thrilling feelings of I did it!, I made it!, I can!

Rapid speeds: Children swing on vines, ropes or playground swings; slide on sleds, skates or playground slides; shoot down rapids on logs or boats; and ride bikes, skateboards and other devices fast enough to produce the thrill of feeling out of control.

Dangerous tools: Depending on the culture, children experience play with knives, hammers, screw drivers, farm machinery (where work and play combine), or other tools known to be potentially dangerous. There's great satisfaction in being trusted to handle such tools, but also a thrill in controlling them, knowing that a mistake could hurt.

Dangerous elements: Children love to play with fire, or in and around bodies of water, both which pose some danger.

Rough and tumble: Children everywhere chase one another around and fight playfully, and they typically prefer being in the most vulnerable position - the one being chased or the one underneath in wrestling (the position that involves the most risk of being hurt and requires the most skill to overcome).

Disappearing/getting lost: Little children play hide and seek and experience the thrill of temporary, scary separation from their companions. Older ones venture off, on their own, away from adults, into territories that to them are new and filled with imagined dangers, including the danger of getting lost.

The benefits of risky play

Risky play is crucial to a child's development so it's important that educators and parents don't prevent children from engaging in risky experiences and activities. Some of the key life-skill benefits to be gained from risky play include:

  • Building resilience and persistence

  • Balance and coordination - development of motor skills

  • Awareness of the capabilities and limits of their own bodies

  • The ability to assess and make judgement without risk

  • Handling of tools safely and with purpose

  • Understanding consequence to action

  • Confidence and independence

  • Resourcefulness

  • Creativity and inventiveness

  • Curiosity and wonder

  • Problem solving

Issues with not enabling risky play

On the flip side, children who don't engage in risky play are more likely to be

  • clumsy,

  • less physically fit,

  • have little control over motor skills,

  • feel uncomfortable in their own body,

  • have poor balance,

  • a fear of rapid movement and will be less able to manage risk.

  • In addition there is some evidence suggesting that children that are not able to experience risky play as children will try to create it themselves as teenagers. The consequences of risky play at this age can be far greater than it is as young children.

How to minimise hurt to children during risky play?

The approved early years learning framework for children aged birth to five years under the NQF (National Quality Framework), encourages learning environments that invite and encourage children to take risks. It also lists a number of key outcomes of early childhood, one of which being that children become strong in their social and emotional wellbeing through many aspects including accepting challenges and taking considered risks.

Despite this, tighter regulations and concerns over safety, mean many early childhood educators restrict the amount of risky play that occurs in their place of service. This may include limiting access to certain areas, putting a halt on particular activities, tighter supervision and more rules and restrictions around children's free play, which may result in children not engaging enough in risky play.

So, what do you do? The solution is to create the right balance. Provide risks, but reduce the chance of serious harm to children.

Taking risks in a safe environment

The role of an early educator is to ensure that children have opportunities to enjoy all the benefits of risky play, but without any serious injuries taking place.

Risks can be categorised as either a challenge or a hazard. Challenges are something that children can negotiate which might be appropriate for certain situations - such as a tall climbing frame. However, hazards can be dangerous, and you might need to remove or modify them - for example if that climbing frame had loose planks or sharp edges which could result in children sustaining an injury.

Tips for approaching potential hazards:

  • Avoid treating each hazard with the same degree of seriousness. All educators at KCLC Early Learning complete risk assessments to minimise the risk of serious harm to children during risky play, identifies safety measures that are able to be introduced to reduced harm (such as soft fall, increased supervision by educators, reduced child numbers experiencing the experience at one time).

  • Assess whether you can reframe and turn a hazard into a safe challenge instead.

  • Review the risk/benefit profile of each activity to determine if the benefits are greater than the risks for the activity being considered.

  • Remember that children should always be supervised and take caution with regards to any equipment that's used for risky play. For example, put away scissors or sharp/heavy tools after an activity, and lock the gate that provides access to a more advanced playground when unsupervised.

How to create more opportunities for risky play

Be gender equal: Whether it's intentional or not, many carers tend to encourage boys to be messy little adventurers more than they do with girls. So be sure to treat everyone equally by commenting positively when any child pushes their boundaries and leaves their comfort zone.

Little tradies: Under supervision, let children use woodwork benches with real tools and accessories such as hammers, nails and screws.

Food preparation: Encourage children to help educators cut up fruit or other items or take part in cooking things like pizzas, or damper on a fire pit to help educate about fire safety.

Excursions: Take children on outings to places like the bush or beach to explore nature and navigate things like road safety and not getting lost.

Loose parts play: Give children items such as plastic pipes, milk crates, large reels, ropes, pulleys, wooden boxes, sticks and logs to play with.

Allow physical play: Let kids climb, jump, chase each other and challenge their unique individual physical skills. Let children experience height and speed are particularly important.

Encourage creativity: Allow the use of playground equipment in non-traditional ways, such as going up the slide and not down it.

Support always: Give children the opportunity to solve and make decisions with your support. Support is important while children engage in risky play, but we need to be careful in the type of support we provide children. For example, if a child refuses to even try to climb a tree unless an educator holds them it is likely the child is not ready for this experience at this stage. Support in the form of encouragement and prevention of serious harm is the most productive support educators are able to give.

The idea of risky play can be scary for many parents. The thought of not being present while their children are playing in risky experiences is understandable, but parents are asked by many educators to remember the many benefits this type of play provides their children.

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