Risky Play In The Early Years: Opportunities and Obstacles

by | Gross Motor Skills, Social Emotional Development | 2 comments

Engaging in risky play provides children with immense learning opportunities:

  • Improve gross motor skills.
  • Use motor planning and sequencing skills to execute complex movements.
  • Think about consequences as part of risk assessment.
  • Improves visuospatial skills.
  • Often involves cooperation with peers.
  • Provides opportunities to experience emotions such as exhilaration, joy, excitement, fear, apprehension and pride.
  • Increases confidence in their own capabilities and fosters a growth mindset.

When was the last time you saw a child climb high up into a tree, speed down a hill in a home-made hill trolley (go-Kart), walk over slippery rocks near the beach/river/lake or wander alone in the bush?

Risky play on a billy kart

Chances are that these were all activities that you experienced as a child – but sadly children today are not being given the same freedoms.

What is risky play?

Any play where there is an element of danger or a risk of injury is considered to be risky.

Ellen Beate Hansen Sandseter (2007) suggests that there are 6 main categories of risky play:

Play Involving Great Heights: For young children this might just be getting up to the top of a slide or a climbing structure (good climbing skills are important for all children) but for others the thrill would be in climbing a tree to a great height to enjoy the view and the feeling of being in communion with nature. Adults can provide encouragement and support as children test their limits.

Risky play climbing a tree
Children climbing trees with adult supervision

Play Involving Great Speed: Hurtling down a hill on a bike/scooter/skateboard/hill trolley or flying through the air on a zip line or flying fox. Feeling the thrill of speed without being in complete control.

Risky play on a flying fox
Child enjoying the speed of a zip line

Play With Dangerous Tools: Being trusted with real tools such as hammers, nails, saws, knives or other culturally specific tools such as spears and other hunting tools – provides a feeling of being responsible whilst still aware that these tools can cause injury.

Play Near Dangerous Elements: Being near deep water, crossing a flowing creek by stepping on slippery stones – the danger is falling in and getting swept away – making the crossing safely gives a feeling of mastery.

Risky play toasting marshmallows under supervision
Children toasting marshmallows on an open fire

Learning about fire and safety around fire – helping to build a fire and considering the risks – cooking on an open fire and dousing the fire – are all skills that help children to be aware of and show due respect to the environment.

Rough and Tumble Play: Being chased (and caught) and other types of rough and tumble activities such as play wrestling allow children to feel vulnerable and to learn acceptable limits, burn off energy and provides physical contact.

Play where children can disappear/be alone: Spending time in a forest or bush setting to wander, explore, observe and be creative without adult intervention. Playing hide and seek and experience a tiny amount of separation anxiety, being startled as a friend jumps out from behind a big tree allow children to be with themselves and to experience a small degree of fright and delight.

Risky play playing by himself in the bush
Child exploring in bushland

Thinking about the environments you have within your home/centre/school – do these cater for any of the 6 categories of risky play?

What are the obstacles for risky play and how to overcome them?

Risk of injury

Mariana Brussioni from the University of British Columbia suggests that play environments should be as ‘safe as necessary’ over ‘safe as possible’ (2012).

We need to teach children from as a very young age to observe and think about the inherent risks in everyday life without being so cautious that we don’t allow them to experience any risk at all.

For example, let’s take a look at walking to school. What are the risks?

  • Getting lost en-route
  • Being abducted by a stranger
  • Getting hit by a car crossing the road.

What can we do to ameliorate those risks but still give children the opportunity and learning experiences to be found in walking to school?

If you live within a 1-2 kilometre distance from your child’s school – then they should be able to walk that distance quite comfortably carrying their own backpack.

As with all learning, young children will need some assistance from adults or more competent peers to incrementally learn the skills necessary to achieve this safely.

Begin by walking the route together and pointing out landmarks and potential dangers such as how to cross the road safely, being careful around parked cars, observing indicators on cars, assessing speed of approaching traffic and trip hazards.

Active transportation such as walking/riding/scootering to school is a great way to increase the physical activity for both children and parents.

Gradually, over time, you can decrease the portion of the route you walk together by letting the child walk the last 50 or 100 metres alone or allowing them to walk with a friend or an older sibling.

It is a good idea to learn road sense by walking before riding as the child is not having to think about managing the mechanics of the bike/scooter as well as thinking about their surroundings.

Could your school set up a walking group? Perhaps you have a park or oval close by to the school where parents can park and drop off their children – who then all walk together to the school with one or more responsible adults in charge of the group. This can be a win:win as it reduces traffic at the school, provides easy parking options for parents and gets kids moving.

Children walking to school

It is much safer for children to walk in groups, not only as a deterrent to stranger interference, but also to learn from each other, chat with others, form social relationships – possibly outside of their normal friendship groups. Older children can be encouraged to watch out for younger children and help them to cross the roads safely.

Children are often much more capable than we give them credit for.

Think back to your childhood – how far were you allowed to roam? Did you survive? What skills did you learn?

Managing Parental Expectations

Parents naturally are placing trust in the people who are responsible for the care of their children – to keep them safe. But we need to have the conversations about what is acceptable risk?

A baby has many falls as it learns to stand and walk. As caregivers we make sure that the environment is safe enough but there is always the risk of a tumble, bump on the head or a scrape on the knee. We tend to accept these minor injuries as being a necessary part of the process of learning to walk.

Race ahead to the toddler years. According to Kidsafe WA children aged 1-2 years are in the age range most likely to experience injury due to falls. This is because at this stage of life, toddlers are still experimenting with their capabilities but their cognitive ability to assess risk has not quite caught up with their sense of adventure and curiosity. So extra supervision and care is required at this stage as toddlers can over estimate their capabilities!

From the ages of 3 onwards – most children have a more realistic idea of their abilities, so it is important to let them take the lead. Don’t force children to engage is risky play beyond their comfort level – what is exhilarating for one child can be traumatic for another.

If we are to put all of this into perspective – we would not prevent a baby from learning to walk because we are fearful of them bumping their heads or falling over so why are we placing so many restrictions on children’s desire for risky play as they progress through childhood? Gill (2008) warns us that overprotection of this young generation is a much bigger risk because it impacts negatively on their health and their ability to cope with the unpredictability of daily functioning.

If we implement sound safety precautions to prevent serious injury surely the rewards outweigh the risk.

Encourage parents to view your outdoor space and have input into the design. Explain the benefits for having some elements of risk and give them ideas as to how they can gradually expose their child to greater risks within the home and community environment.

What are the Benefits of Risky Play?

Anxiety and depression is on the rise in society but also is becoming very prevalent in children as young as 5 years. Moyles (2012) suggests that by engaging is risky play and gaining mastery over challenging experiences may actually help children to overcome fears and anxiety while simultaneously fostering a deep understanding of what it means to be safe.

Children who engage with risky play are constantly assessing the risk/reward ratio and this has important cognitive benefits including maintaining motivation, perseverance and concentration on the task, working together in teams to achieve a common goal, problem solving and being creative. (Knight, 2011)

Challenging our limits – whether that be physically or emotionally leads to growth. By allowing children to engage in physically challenging environments they can experience a range of emotions – both pleasant and unpleasant.

The child is fearful of crossing the creek, they see the slippery rocks and fast rushing water. They take one tentative step onto a flat rock – maintain their balance and slowly step to the next rock – they may use a long stick to provide stability, but they successfully cross the creek and immediately are filled with a feeling of joy or pride in their achievement.

Ideas for incorporating some risky play into the early childhood setting.

Being outdoors in nature provides children with an abundance of choice for their play. However, most kindergartens and pre-schools don’t have the luxury of having access to the completely natural environment.

Consequently, we have seen a shift towards Nature Playgrounds – by incorporating some elements of nature into the outdoor space we can provide young children with a type of transition experience.

If your budget doesn’t extend to having a complete Nature Playground can you incorporate a gentle slope or hill into your space? Great for rolling down or sliding down on some cardboard which introduces young children to elements of speed.

You may not have a great climbing tree suitable for very young children, but could you include a couple of large tree logs installed at different angles, or have a collection of different sized and shaped boulders or large rocks dumped to encourage climbing and balancing on uneven surfaces?

Risky play climbing a tree branch

Consider excursions to wetlands, beaches or national parks during the year.

Encourage children to dress for the weather and experience being outdoors in the cold, rain and wind as well as in the warm sunshine. Get children to think about their footwear. Is it a good idea to try climbing in thongs, or when would it be a good idea to wear gumboots?

Introduce some Loose Parts to your outdoor space and allow children to play with them freely – pipes, ropes, crates, tyres, old curtains, nets, broken chairs. Watch this short video to get some ideas.


Is there sufficient space to install a low zip line? Playing on zip lines provides children with both motor and emotional challenges. It also promotes turn taking and patience as children wait in line for a turn.

In warm weather – why not add in some water play/mud play to simulate a creek crossing?

In colder weather – build a fire in a fire pit and toast some marshmallows or cook some damper in the coals.

Create a woodwork shop with offcuts of timber, and provide children with hammers, nails, screwdrivers, nuts and bolts – perhaps engage your local “Men’s Shed (or Ladies Shed) “to come and give the little ones some mentoring. Young children can begin using tacks and a cork board before graduating to hammers and nails.

Children performing wood work

Play games with the children which involve some rough and tumble play such as British Bulldog, Dodge (maybe use soft balls for Dodge to prevent fear of balls!), What’s The Time Mr Wolf, Tag Chasey or King of the Pack.

Could you invest in some high jump mats  or foam ball pits to encourage jumping from a height into safe soft fall?

Create some solitary spaces in your room for quiet time and reflection and allow children to build their own cubby houses or quiet spaces in the outdoor space using Loose Parts.

Child on monkey bars

Monkey Bars are a great addition to any playground as this apparatus allows children to build their upper body and shoulder strength (a crucial precursor for fine motor skills).

When I was young, the Monkey Bars on my school playground were quite high and over bitumen. Having blisters was a rite of passage and a few tough landings made you just that much more determined to get to the end. Now days soft fall is a requirement, which greatly reduces the risk of broken bones, but some Monkey Bars are still too high for pre-school aged children to reach. Stretching for the first rung whilst standing on a metal platform can be dangerous in itself, because if the child does not have sufficient strength to hold on to the bar (if they can even reach it), they may slip off and the risk of hitting their back or head on the metal platform is high.

Project Scape Australia has come up with a novel solution to this problem – by placing an upright log off to one side of the platform, young children can hold on to the railing, climb up onto the log and easily reach forward to the second rung – to hang and swing from before dropping safely into the soft fall.

How to help children to assess risk?

Talk about safety rules and why we have them – ask the children to predict possible outcomes if safety rules are broken. These types of conversations help children to consider possible consequences to their actions.

Could you have a day of the week when children are encouraged to go UP the slide and come DOWN the stairs backwards rather than the normal way of climbing UP the Stairs and DOWN the slide? Why should we have rules around this type of behaviour?

Don’t rush in to help. Wait just 10 seconds to see if the child can manage on their own.

Ask if they need assistance and if so – try to talk them through the process rather than physically helping.

Provide physical support if needed – try to support the child at the shoulders or hips rather than holding their hands – as the child needs to use their arms and hands as counterweights for balancing.

Ask open ended questions such as “Where do you think you should put your foot next?” or ask children to verbalise what their intentions are – this allows you to understand their thinking process and to ascertain if they have considered the risks.

By encouraging young children to take mini risks in their play we are promoting lifelong skills in risk assessment and an in depth understanding of actions and consequences.


Sandseter, E.B.H. (2007) Categorising risky play—how can we identify risk‐taking in children’s play?, European Early Childhood Education Research Journal, 15:2, 237-252, DOI: 10.1080/13502930701321733

Brussoni, M.; Olsen, L.L.; Pike, I.; Sleet, D.A. Risky Play and Children’s Safety: Balancing Priorities for Optimal Child Development. Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 20129, 3134-3148.

Gill, T. (2008). No Fear: Growing Up in a Risk-Averse Society.  Calouste Gulbenkien Foundation

Moyles, J. (2012) AtoZ of Play in Early Childhood. Open University press. England

Knight, Sara A. (2011) Risk & Adventure in Early Years Outdoor Play: Learning from Forest Schools. SAGE Publications, London, UK.


Animal Fun is affiliated with Project Scape Australia and provides consultation on elements of playground design to cater for many of the Animal Fun Activities.


The suggestions in this post for incorporating some elements for risky play are general in nature. Please be aware of the minimal safety standard requirements in your State or Territory and be mindful of the individual needs and abilities of the children in your care.

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  1. Gabbi

    Hi Sue, and thank you so much for your amazing blog post about the pros and cons of Risky Play. I am currently undertaking my Bachelor of Early Childhood Education at Victoria University, and I would love to reference this article/post. Is there a publishing date nearby that I haven’t found yet?


    • Sue McLaren

      Thanks Gabbi, I’m glad you found the information helpful. This blog article was originally posted on 26/11/2020. Good luck with your course.


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