Allowing for Outdoor Risky Play

Cover Image Allowing for Outdoor Risky Play/ two boys climbing a tree

I’m going to say something that some parents and teachers (except for those that are well-versed in the world of outdoor education) are going to find a bit unsettling so get ready for it… outdoor RISKY play is an essential part of growing and learning. Now that I’ve said it, some of you are ready to leave this blog post. I know, the idea of risky play is scary and unsettling. I don’t blame you, we have been conditioned to believe that as good parents and teachers, we need to ensure the safety of our children at all times. As adults, we fear being judged by others, or even having the police called on us for what others perceive as neglect.

As a result of this hyper-vigilance, children are being brought up in a sanitized world where they are safe from the dangers of strangers, cars, the elements, or the boogie man. They play in highly structured and supervised indoor environments. Children growing up today are either denied opportunities to play outside and engage in risky activities, or their play is highly directed and supervised by a well-meaning adult. However, the unintended consequences of this are kids who are afraid to take risks, trust their own judgement, and become more likely to engage in other risky behaviours later on in their life. 

two children climbing a rock

What is Risky Play​

If you are still with me, we should identify what risky play actually means. Risky play doesn’t mean that our kids are jumping off cliffs or scaling the sides of mountains. According to Mariana Brussoni (on the Nature of Things, Risky Play for Children), outdoor risky play means, “Engaging in play that is thrilling and exciting where children engage in risk without certainty.” This means that each child will have their own unique perceptions of what risk actually means. 

For some, engaging in risks might mean climbing to the first branch of a tree or jumping off of a small rock. For others these activities are just a warm up! Through taking risks, children are learning about the world and how to engage with it. However, the “risk” involved in risky play must be authentic to that child. 

Types of Risky Play​

According to Ellen Beate Hansen Sandseter, the guru on risky play, there are 6 types of risky play that children engage in. 

1. Play with great heights- climbing trees, climbing rocks, playing in tree forts.

2. Play with high speed- running fast, moving fast down a hill

3. Play with harmful tools- using grown up tools such as knives

4. Play near dangerous elements- playing near fire

5. Rough and tumble play- play involving physical contact, wrestling

6. Play where children can hide/get lost- play where children might get lost or not be seen

Why Kids Need Risky Play Opportunities​

Play allows kids to begin to understand the world around them. They process what they are observing and taking in through their play. When the elements of risk are removed from play kids become bored. Mariana Brussoni states, “Risky play in early childhood can help develop a child’s self-confidence, resilience, executive functioning abilities, and even risk management skills and can actually reduce the risk of injury too.”  

As kids engage in risky play, they begin to understand their own tolerance for different activities. They start to listen to their bodies and trust their own instincts about what feels right to them.

a girl sitting in a tree

Safety During Risky Play​

Although outdoor play is inherently risky, there are things that we can do to manage the risks and decrease some of the the hazards. We want our children to engage in risky play, however, we don’t want to expose them to unnecessary dangers. 

1. Risk Assessment​

Before any outdoor play activity, do a thorough site assessment. Check for any hazards that could be present in your play space. Things to be aware of:

  •  vehicle traffic/roads near the play space
  • animals (wild or domestic)
  • tripping or fall hazards
  • overhead branches
  • proximity to bathrooms, buildings, etc.
  • weather 

Once you have identified the hazards, make a plan for how you will deal with them. Your plan might involve, marking the hazards with trail tape, setting clear boundaries, or making a space off-limits if the hazard can not be mitigated. 

2. Supervision​

If your students are going to be playing outdoors, it is important that they have appropriate supervision. The level and amount of supervision that will be required is dependent on your kids/students, their age, their abilities, and their needs. Your insurance or school policies might also dictate how much supervision is required. Students with special needs may require more direct supervision. If students are using tools or engaging in particularly risky activities they may also require direct supervision. 

Know your students, your area, and your activities to best judge what the appropriate amount of supervision will be to allow students to engage in risky play, while not feeling like they are being overly supervised. 

3. Trusting Your Own Judgement​

Allowing for outdoor risky play means stepping back and trusting your kids. You need to trust your kids and students and let them know that you see them as capable. You can also let them know that you are there to help them out if needed. However, if something doesn’t feel right follow your instinct and intervene. features a great tool to help you get started in outdoor risky play and helping you navigate your role in risky play.  

4. Scaffolding Risky Play Experiences​

Outdoor risky play should not involve forcing kids into experiences that they are not ready for or do not want to do. Instead it means finding appropriate ways to provide the space for kids to try new and risky experiences. Some ways that we can help to scaffold our students ways to risky experiences are:

  • set clear boundaries so that your students understand where they are allowed to play
  • tell the kids that they must be able to see a teacher at all times
  • instruct students on safe ways to engage in risky activities, for example teach kids which trees look good to climb and how high they may climb
  • encourage students to look out for each other during play
  • discuss with your students different feelings that they may have during risky play, for example if your tummy feels funny when you are doing something, it means that your body is trying to tell you it might not be a safe choice
  • if a student wants to try something but needs some support, be there to spot them. However, I always tell kids that they need to try on their own first 
  • give children the tools and vocabulary for engaging in rough and tumble play with others. For example, give students words like, “I’ve had enough” or “That’s too rough” so that they can set their own boundaries. 
a boy straddling over two rocks

Allowing for Risky Play Experiences…​

Most adults probably have at least one or two fond memories or playing outside as a child. However, many of our kids are not able to experience the joy of risky outdoor play, simply because we don’t let them. It is now time to embrace the inherent risks of outdoor play and allow our children to engage in outdoor risky play. Our kids deserve to have opportunities to climb trees, jump, and engage in rough-and-tumble play. It is through these activities that our kids learn to understand themselves, set boundaries, and build their confidence and self-esteem through participating in outdoor risky play. 

Simply by making time to take your kids outside and into natural settings can help to provide more opportunities for children to engage in risky play. Near by nature, such as a park, can provide hills to roll down and trees to climb. Allowing children to play while not being watched over like a hawk can also allow them to start to experience more of the world on their own terms. 

Additionally, as adults we need to understand that risky play, doesn’t mean dangerous play. If we feel like something isn’t safe, it is ok to intervene and help find an alternative way to accomplish a task. We can do our part to help to mitigate some of the risks involved in outdoor play while still allowing our kids to experience the joy and benefits of engaging in risky play on their own terms. 

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