Navigating Risk in Outdoor Play

Cover image navigating risk in outdoor educaiton/ 3 children climbing on a rock

Many people fear taking kids outside, especially at school, simply because of the perceived risks involved. However, many people fail to realize that there is risk and even danger present in many of our daily activities. In fact, some activities, such as driving in a car, are even more risky than being outside in nature. However, with a bit of planning and preparation, outdoor play doesn’t need to be synonymous with dangerous play. It may take some time, but feeling comfortable with our own abilities to navigate risk in outdoor play is very achievable. 

When we prevent our kids from playing outside and engaging in what might be considered risky play, we are preventing them from reaping the health benefits of spending time outdoors. There are so many ways that our kids and students learn and grow from both outdoor play and risky play. Outdoor play has its inherent risks, but we can do our part to ensure that our students stay safe by mitigating hazards and removing dangers. 

Risky Play​

In navigating risk in outdoor play you need to first understand the difference between a risk and a hazard. According to the Canadian Public Health Association, risk is the possibility of something bad or harmful happening. A hazard is a potential source of harm. When we talk about risky play, we are not necessarily talking about kids participating in play that puts them in the way of hazards. Instead risky play means that children participate in play that they perceive to be thrilling and daring. They are engaging with elements in nature that they find exciting and stimulating. 

Sometimes when we think of risky play, we inadvertently think “dangerous play.” However, risky play doesn’t mean play where kids intentionally put themselves into dangerous situations. Risky play is subjective and therefore different for each child. What one child might find daring, another might find boring. Through risky play, children are able to interact with potential hazards and test their own boundaries and limits as well as learn how to manage risks on their own. 

According to Ellen Beate Hansen Sandseter there are six types of risky play:

  1.  Play at heights- climbing trees, climbing rocks
  2. Play at great speeds- running down hills, riding a bike fast
  3. Play with harmful tools- using knives, using other equipment
  4. Playing near harmful elements- playing near water, playing near rocks
  5. Rough and tumble play- wrestling, playing with body contact
  6. Play where you can disappear or get lost- hide and go seek 
children climbing on a log

Navigating Risk in Outdoor Play​

Engaging in risky outdoor play is an important part of childhood development. There are many benefits to risky play including increased confidence, physical literacy, better emotional regulation, and adaptability. The type of risky play that your kids will engage in will totally depend on the child’s age, abilities, and personality. What one kid might find risky, another might find boring. 

In order to ensure that risky play and outdoor play don’t become dangerous play, it is important to assess and mitigate the hazards in your learning site. Some hazards may be impossible to remove, therefore careful planning is required as to how you will deal with these hazards. 

Have a Plan​

Before you even start your program, you should have a plan in place. Ensure that you are clear on the purpose of your program, the spaces you will be using, and your own tolerance for risk. It may also be beneficial to create a handbook for families, administrators, and even your insurance company that outlines policies, procedures, what you will be doing and where you will be doing it.

Some of the questions your plan needs to answer are:

  • what is the purpose of my program?
  • what will my program or classes be doing?
  • what are the risky activities that may be involved?
  • where will our activities take place?
  • how do we plan to supervise these activities?
  • what are our plans to mitigate some of the risks involved?


If you are a school or business, you will need to ensure that your insurance company covers your activities. You may need to work directly with your insurance broker to create a plan tailored to your program. Having a plan in place that outlines your risk assessment practices, information about your site, and your policies and procedures will help the insurance company in underwriting a plan that is right for your program. 

Know Your Area​

In order to safely mitigate some of the hazards in your learning space, it is important to understand your area and learning space. 

Some of the things that you will need to be aware of are:

  • weather and temperature pattern
  • shelters in the area
  • potential harmful plants in the area
  • animals that may be present
  • proximity to facilities such as a bathroom, roads, medical services
3 children climbing in a tree

Site Assessment​

1. Identify the Hazards​

Prior to taking your students out to any outdoors learning space, a thorough site assessment is required. Through your site assessment you are not only looking for hazards, but are also finding ways to mitigate some of these hazards. You also need to take into consideration the needs of your students. If you have students with particular mobility needs, keep these in mind as you do your assessment

Your site assessment should include:

  • ground level assessment (foot and ankle height)- tripping hazards, sharp objects in the ground, poisonous plants 
  •  shrub level (ankle to shoulder height)- tripping hazards, branches that could scratch, steps 
  • canopy level (above should height)- “clotheslining hazards”, dead branches that could fall, trees that look dry or rotten (dangerous to climb)
  • buildings/structures- are these safe to use, sit on, etc.
  • nearby facilities
  • roads/traffic
  • animals, insects

Once you have identified the potential hazards, you must decide the level of hazard these present. Will the potential hazard cause a small injury, a more serious injury, or is there potential for a more life-altering injury?

*Templates for conducting a site assessment can be found in our free “Get Outside Tool Kit!”

2. Mitigate the Hazards​

With your hazards identified, you must now make a plan to address some of these hazards. The idea is to make the site as safe as possible from unnecessary risks. We are not sanitizing the site and removing everything. We are simply finding ways to prevent injuries while the children play.

Some actions that you may take are:

  • marking tripping hazards
  • setting boundaries so that children do not come into contact with a potential hazard
  • cleaning up broken glass, removing protruding nails, removing broken furniture
  • cutting down dead branches that have the potential to fall
  • marking trees that are unsafe to climb
  • teaching students about safety around a particular element
  • establishing protocols for particular situations 

Daily Risk Assessments​

Things can change overnight. There are many hazards that can appear in your learning space in the time that you are not using it. An animal might move in, the weather might change, a storm might have brought down a tree, or vandals may have left some broken glass. As a result, a daily site assessment should be done to ensure that any new hazards are mitigated. 

Some things to look for each day:

  • damaged property (broken fences, picnic benches, signs, etc.)
  • loose branches, especially after a storm
  • broken glass or bottles
  • needles or other drug paraphernalia 
  • signs of threatening animals
  • signs of poisonous plants
  • anything else that could be a potential hazard to your students

On the Spot Risk Assessments​

Although you do your best to mitigate the risks before your students come to use your site, some hazards might appear suddenly. For example, an animal might pay a visit to your site while kids are playing. Or a storm may suddenly roll in. For many of these situations, you will want to have a set of protocols established to take the stress and guesswork out of what to do.

For situations that are not immediately dangerous, you may want to use the opportunity as a teaching opportunity. For example, if students encounter a tree that looks unsafe to climb, you can teach them about testing the branches and looking for signs that the tree is safe. You can also talk to the children about trusting their own instincts. Another example might be children encountering glass that may have been missed during a site assessment. You can teach children about finding an adult to safely remove the glass, or if students are older, how to safely remove the glass themselves. 

a boy climbing on a climbing wall

Informing Parents​

An integral part of ensuring that everyone is safe during outdoor education is ensuring that everyone is informed of what you will be doing outside and how to come prepared. The last thing you want is a student coming to school without the proper clothing or footwear. Children who are not properly dressed for the weather or have inappropriate shoes present unnecessary risks.

Before the start of the school year, it may be beneficial to create a booklet, a website, or have an information session that informs parents about what your outdoor program will involve. At this time it would be appropriate to discuss some of the risks that may be involved and what your are doing to manage these risks. You can also highlight how their child will benefit from being outdoors. 

You will also need to inform them that as part of your program, their students may be engaged in “risky play” activities. Your insurance or school may require you to have parents sign a waiver or a letter of understanding stating that they understand that their student will be participating in these activities.

Have Kids Come Prepared​

Improper clothing and footwear create risks that can easily be avoided. In order for kids to be safe outdoors, it is important that they are prepared with the proper clothing and gear for outdoor learning everyday. Give families plenty of notice for what you will be doing outside and the clothing that is required for different types of weather or activities. 

Some of the things you may want to inform families of would be:

Information posters and checklists that you can share with families about dressing for the weather can be found in our free “Get Outside Tool Kit!”
4 children playing in a tree


In order to navigate some of the risks of outdoor play, you will need to know your students, your site, and your activities and understand where supervision is required. If your students are participating in risky play activities they will need to be appropriately supervised. Older children may require less direct supervision than younger children, but supervision is still required. Also, your activities may determine what supervision is required. For example, you may require one-on-one supervision for activities that involve using tools or climbing. If children are playing near water or rocks, they may also require more careful supervision. Proper planning is required in order to ensure that everyone is safe while participating in outdoor play.

Teach Protocols​

Even with the best site assessment, dangers may present themselves. It is important that children are taught safety protocols at the beginning of the program and that these protocols are understood and practiced regularly. 

Some protocols you may wish to establish are:

  • emergency signals (whistles, horns, etc.)
  • what to do if you lose the group
  • what to do if someone gets hurt
  • what to do if a leader gets hurt
  • what to do if you encounter an animal
  • what to do if you encounter a person who makes you feel uncomfortable 
  • what to do in the case of sudden extreme weather

Teach Your Kids To Trust Themselves​

One of the best ways to navigate risk in outdoor play is to teach your students to trust themselves and their own instincts. Children are intelligent and often know their own limits. If we want to create space for students to engage in risk during outdoor play, we need to trust them to make good choices. Participating in outdoor play and navigating the risk in outdoor play are important aspects of childhood development. Through participating in risky play, children learn how to manage risks on their own. The skills they learn through outdoor play can be transferred to other aspects of their lives.

We can teach our students to trust themselves by first showing them that we trust them. Allowing our students to try using tools, climb, and play just out of sight shows our students that we trust them to make good choices. We can also teach our students to trust their own instincts. Risky play allows students to understand their own body signals, such as the funny feeling in your stomach when things feel unsafe. When we give space for our students to learn about their own preferences and body signals, we in turn create space for our students to build confidence in managing risks on their own.

Finding Balance​

Not all risks can be mitigated. Accidents can happen even with the most careful planning. I have had kids hurt themselves while walking down the hallway. However, this shouldn’t stop us from allowing our students to engage in outdoor risky play activities. When we take steps to minimize the dangers, mitigate the hazards, and teach our students about trusting their own judgement, we create space for our students to learn and grow. This space allows students to experience the benefits of outdoor play. 

children playing on a rock and a tree

Now It’s Time to Get Outside and Play​

Risk in outdoor play doesn’t mean danger in outdoor play. Risky outdoor play simply means that children are outdoors experiencing play that is exciting and thrilling to them. There are so many benefits that children experience from risky outdoor play. Through risky play, children learn to trust their own instincts and set their own boundaries. They also build social and emotional skills. As children see and recognize their own growth, they begin to build confidence in their own abilities. 

Make a safe space for outdoor risky play. Take some time to prepare yourself and your families for outdoor play. Do a thorough site inspection and make a plan to mitigate or eliminate some of the hazards in your play space. Ensure that your students come prepared to be outdoors and spend time engaging with trees, rocks, and the elements. Together, all of these activities will allow your students to have a safe space to explore, learn, and grow. 

As your students spend time out in nature, they will begin to build healthy connections to nature. They will also begin to reap the physical, mental, and social benefits of spending time outdoors. We can create time a space at school for our students to make these connections to nature and to each other. 

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