The Importance of Risky Play in Childhood

benefits of risky play outdoors

This article has been written by early years consultant, Anne Rodgers, from ATR Consultancy.

Why is risky play such an important part of childhood? Children need to be kept safe from potential harm and hazards at all times, but they also need to explore and take risks.

Risky play allows children to challenge themselves on many levels:

  • Physically – by climbing a little higher, running a little faster or jumping a little further
  • Emotionally – feeling out of control or overcoming fear
  • Mentally – learning how to get out of trouble, learning your own boundaries and that of the environment around them

risky play outdoors logChildren need opportunities to problem solve and experiment with taking risks to challenge themselves physically and mentally. They need time to practice new skills and develop their bodies.

Children need and instinctively want to be able to take risks to test their abilities and strengths. However, children do need the support to take these risks as part of their learning and development.

When creating a safe environment for children, practitioners must consider their legal duty to identify and reduce or eliminate risk, but should also take into account those risks which are acceptable too. The risk of falling off larger play equipment is quite high, however, the risk of harm is minimised by ensuring that there is adequate supervision, correct positioning of the equipment (away from windows, or walls), crash mats, no overcrowding and particular “rules” set by adults in accordance with individual children’s level of understanding. The benefits will include children being able to expand their skills, as they climb higher, reach further, or balance for longer, but also experience the consequence of taking risks beyond their current ability.

Indoor Play

risky play indoor blocksWhen developing a setting, it is paramount that it is a safe and secure place where children learn to play and gain independence skills required before they attend school. It is vital that this is a prepared environment, rich in opportunities for children to learn and explore and to make sense of the world around them.

Activities should be age and stage appropriate and the areas of learning clearly defined. Staff should be knowledgeable about what it is that children enjoy and observe and plan for play and experiences which will help them to learn and achieve next steps in their development. Children need supervision from staff at all times, but it is important that they know when to step in and when to sit back and let the child solve issues by themselves.

The children’s safety is paramount and they should not be allowed to take unnecessary risks with their own or others safety and well-being. Procedures must be in place to safeguard children at all times and children should be guided in how to use equipment safely and how to behave well within the setting. For example, children should not run around whilst handling scissors or sharp tools, although they may use them with care at the designated place set aside for them in an appropriate way.

Care should also be taken when using cooking ingredients in case of allergies and intolerance’s and young children should not be allowed near the cooker when cooking. Child safety knives can be bought which allows children to cut fruit and vegetables whilst remaining safe. Allowing children to use utensils properly eliminates the risks that may be involved if they source them themselves when they shouldn’t.

Toys and equipment need to be age and stage appropriate that offer challenges to the child. For example, younger children often like to play with toys that are meant for older children, but these may pose choking risks if they put them in their mouths. Check all toys are suitable for the needs of the children using them and remove any unsafe or broken toys. 

Outdoor Play

risky play outdoors tyreOutdoor play is fundamental for children’s health and well-being. Practitioners need to plan effectively for children’s next steps in their learning across all 7 areas of the EYFS curriculum. Each setting is unique and may have small outside areas or large outdoor areas, grassy areas or tarmac. Careful planning will help make the most of the type of space you have. Allow children opportunities to take risks by having assault courses for them to negotiate suitable equipment to enable independence in play and space to explore and discover.

Some settings have areas for growing plants and flowers and, if they are lucky, an area set aside for an allotment to grow fruits and vegetables. Staff need to be aware of poisonous plants, allergies and what is good to grow at particular times of the year. Children can use gardening equipment that is suitable for their age and stage of development. Children should be taught that they do not pick any wild berries or plants in case they may be poisonous or harmful to them.

The role of the adult

risky play rustic blocks outdoorsAdults need to support and encourage all children to enable them to gain in confidence and try new things, they need to be available to explore with them and talk about things that interest young children outdoors and listen and respond to their questions. Children need to be supervised at all times indoors and outdoors, yet allowed freedom to take risks and manage their own play.

Planning for the curriculum and next steps in development will help adults to know what it is that children need to learn next, but also extend their play ideas and to have fun exploring and experimenting. Adults need to observe how play is being managed and change areas if necessary to meet the needs and interest of the children. It is important that children have plenty of time outdoors every day and essential that the adults share in the child’s curiosities and delights – the adult needs to be tuned in to the children and their interests and teach children how to care for the resources by modelling how to tidy up. They also need to ensure that they show children a variety of ways in which to use equipment and the space they are in whether that is indoors or outside. The best resource that the children have is the practitioner who plans experiences and activities for them.

Adults also need to:

  • Risk assess the areas used daily
  • Ensure health and safety procedures and policies are being followed
  • Make sure all children are safe and protected in all weathers
  • Ensure equipment is safe and age and stage appropriate
  • Join in when invited into children play
  • Be enthusiastic about being outside
  • Plan fun and exciting play experiences
  • Make sure all children are included and can take part
  • Develop activities to the needs of the child and their next steps
  • Reflect on what works and what does not work and why

By being actively involved in the children’s outdoor experiences, adults have a chance to ensure the children in their care have happy, worthwhile and meaningful experiences, which will enhance their developing skills whilst having fun together. Supervision of children is key for ensuring safety, but balance this with allowing for opportunities to explore and discover independently with materials that you provide.

Links to the EYFS

EYFS (2012) Development Matters: Characteristics of Effective Learning

Support for children to take risks and explore… Encourage children to try new activities and to judge risks for themselves… Always respect children’s efforts and ideas, so they feel safe to take a risk with a new idea.

PSED – Be aware of and alert to possible dangers, while recognising the importance of encouraging young children’s sense of exploration and risk taking.

Physical Development – Ensure children’s safety, while not unduly inhibiting their risk-taking.

The benefits of risky play

Risk allows children to push themselves to the limits of their capabilities and allows them space to progress. It also allows children to feel in control of their actions, learning and play; they learn boundaries in a safe, secure environment where they can be supported directly or indirectly by practitioners.

risky play tree outdoors


About Anne Rodgers

Anne Rodgers is an Early Years Consultant (ATR Consultancy) and Writer. Anne has 36 years’ experience of working in the childcare and education sector – including training practitioners, managing numerous settings over the years and writing articles for Early Years Educator and the CACHE Alumni website.

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