Early Years Risky Outdoor Play

Posted: February 9, 2022

As an RECE at EarlyON Central I have had the opportunity to see first-hand the benefits of risky outdoor play in early childhood. For decades risky play has been an essential part of early childhood development, but in more recent years the attitudes around children’s exposure to risk in play has severely impacted children’s abilities to take and determine risks. “The term risky outdoor play is broad and can encompass many different types of experiences” (Hanrahan & Duncan, 2019). Risky outdoor play is open, and child led which influences skill development and promotes growth.

Risk Taking

“Risk taking is a natural and inherent part of play as children seek to experience new sensations and experiment to test their limits” (Hanrahan & Duncan, 2019). Children must be encouraged to assess risk during play as they are going through real life risky situations so that they can discover what is safe and what is not. Allowing children to climb high in a tree and stopping when they feel comfortable builds confidence and capability. It is important that adults do not allow their own fear of heights to stop children from completing their desired task. Risk changes as a child goes through developmental milestones and gains more confidence in the world around them. What is risky at age one will no longer be risky at age three or four.

Child in tree

Spratt, 2022

“Children gain new skills as they challenge themselves, thus risk is an important element of play, especially outdoors. Safety is not a matter of reviewing a checklist, but rather an attitude. A checklist can never cover every situation that will arise.” (Martins & Huggins, 2015, Pg. 100).

Risk vs Hazard

Parents and caregivers must look at the risk vs hazard that comes with outdoor active play for children. A hazard is a situation where the harm to the child isn’t obvious and the potential for injury is hidden such as a weak spot in a wooden deck. Risk is a situation where your child can examine and evaluate the challenge and decide on a course of action such as climbing at heights. Parents and caregivers must take away their own biases regarding what is safe and what is dangerous for children when allowing them to engage in outdoor play. Activities or situations parents and caregivers feel are risks to children based on their own life experience and reaction can be detrimental to child’s growth and development. Instead try to be unbiased towards risky play and allow your child the opportunity to explore and discover on their own terms.

“The biggest risk is keeping kids indoors” (ParticipACTION, 2015).

Loose Parts to Elevate Risk

Adding loose parts into an outdoor play space can have huge benefits to children’s learning experiences. Allowing children to explore materials and manipulate them as they envision leads to more meaningful and creative play. A stick can have many uses to a child and their imagination will run wild with ideas, they can pretend it’s a sword, a magic wand or paintbrush. Adding large spools or wooden platforms promotes risky play by climbing up to heights that test children’s comfort levels. Limit hazards or unsafe risk by ensuring safe environments that are free from obstacles, have softer surfaces such as wood chips, grass, or sand, also use re-direction if a child is using loose parts in an unsafe way. For example, if children are using sticks as a weapon and hitting each other, redirect the play, perhaps the sticks can be magic wands and you can cast a freezing spell on each other. Another way to re-direct unsafe behaviour is to add in more loose parts, try adding in bowls and water to make soup, those sticks would be great for stirring! Allowing children to explore loose part materials as they desire results in children who are confident and learn how to safely assess their own risks.

Child outdoors

Drummer, 2022

Chris Strathdee, RECE


Drummer, Alexander. (2022). Untitled Photo. Retrieved January 25, 2022, from https://unsplash.com/s/photos/risky-play?utm_source=unsplash&utm_medium=referral&utm_content=creditCopyText

Hanrahan, V. H., & Duncan, K. D. (2019). Risky outdoor play in early childhood: Feel the fear and learn from it. He Kupu The World. Retrieved January 25, 2022, from https://www.hekupu.ac.nz/article/risky-outdoor-play-early-childhood-feel-fear-and-learn-it

Martin, S., Huggins, L., & YMCA of Greater Toronto Staff. (2015). YMCA Playing to Learn (2nd Edition). YMCA of Greater Toronto.

ParticipACTION. (2015). The Biggest Risk is Keeping Kids Indoors. The 2015 ParticipACTION Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth. ParticipACTION Toronto.

Spratt, Annie. (2022). Untitled Photo. Retrieved from https://unsplash.com/s/photos/child-climbing-a-tree?utm_source=unsplash&utm_medium=referral&utm_content=creditCopyText

Unstructured outdoor play and risky play. (2022, January 24). Parachute. Retrieved January 25, 2022, from https://www.parachutecanada.org/en/injury-topic/playgrounds-and-play-spaces/unstructured-outdoor-play-and-risky-play/