Last reviewed 24 September 2015

Concern for children’s safety and the fear of litigation may lead some early years practitioners to avoid offering risky and challenging play in their provisions, but research shows that it is essential for children’s development, confidence and resilience. Early years providers need to strike the right balance between protecting children from harm and allowing them to reap the benefits of risky play. Elizabeth Walker looks at the issues involved.

What is risky play?

Children seek out opportunities for taking risks from the earliest age as they explore their environment and test their limits and boundaries. Learning to walk, ride a bicycle or swim all involve elements of risk but are recognised as important developmental milestones and achievements.

Risky play provides opportunities for challenge, testing limits, exploring boundaries and learning about injury risk. This kind of play most often takes place outdoors and in children’s free play. The opportunities for risky play are therefore dependent on the play environments on offer to children.

Research suggests that natural play environments such as forests and seashores afford more intense risky play than playgrounds do. The growing forest school movement highlights the value of learning experiences in the natural environment.

Activities such as climbing, sliding, balancing, jumping from heights and hanging upside down can all be considered as risky. All children are different and seek varying levels of risk in their play depending on their stage of development and what they feel comfortable with. Risky play does not mean putting children in danger of serious harm and early years providers are responsible for the safety and welfare of the children in their care at all times.

EYFS requirements

In addition to health and safety legislation, s.3.63 of the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) statutory framework requires providers to have a clear and well-understood policy and procedures for assessing any risks to children’s safety.

The framework requires providers to review risk assessments regularly and to determine where it is helpful to make some written risk assessments in relation to specific issues, to inform staff practice, and to demonstrate how they are managing risks if asked by parents and/or carers or inspectors. According to the framework, risk assessments should also identify aspects of the environment that need to be checked on a regular basis, when and by whom those aspects will be checked, and how the risk will be removed or minimised.

Early years practitioners must pay heed to their legal duties in providing a safe and secure environment but should also consider how they are able to offer rich and diverse learning opportunities which include challenging and risky play.

Benefits of risky play

It can be a real challenge for early years providers to strike the right balance between maintaining safety and offering children opportunities for adventurous and challenging play. Attempting to remove all risk from play may be damaging as children may grow up over-cautious or unable to judge potentially dangerous situations.

It is important that both staff and parents are aware of the importance of risky play and that the benefits are highlighted. These include:

  • mental and physical development

  • problem solving

  • social development

  • nurturing curiosity

  • developing independence and confidence

  • learning capabilities

  • developing balance and co-ordination

  • developing emotional resilience

  • keeping healthy

  • increasing academic performance

  • developing self esteem

  • having fun!

Communication between staff and parents is key to promoting the benefits of risky play and staff should explain to parents how children are learning and developing through the activities they are involved in. This will help to reassure parents that their children are developing and learning in an environment that is exciting and challenging, but where unnecessary risk is managed.

Risky play opportunities

When staff are planning for more adventurous play they could begin by undertaking an audit of what is on offer already. Making a list of risky play opportunities that occur in a week for all the ages in the provision is a good starting point. Questions to ask could include the following.

  • What risky and adventurous activities are on offer to the children currently?

  • Are there different levels outside to climb?

  • Are there different surfaces and textures to explore?

  • Can children get their hands dirty?

  • Do the activities suit the ages and different developmental stages of the children?

  • How can the activities already on offer be enriched to make it more exciting, and more open to children’s experimentation?

  • How can the outside area be set up to ensure that it supports all the children’s different ages and abilities?

  • If outside space is limited, can trips or outings be offered which include more adventurous play?

Making risky play accessible for all

Risky play should be available for all children regardless of age, ability, or gender. Disabled children and those with additional needs have an equal if not greater need for opportunities to take risks, since they may be denied the freedom of choice enjoyed by their peers. Early years providers must assess and manage the level of risk, so that children are given the chance to stretch themselves and develop their abilities without exposing them to unacceptable risks.

Risky play activities may not come naturally to some children, and early years staff should observe and assess the children to see if they need any additional support when engaging in more adventurous play. Staff can encourage and support all the children in their care by:

  • modifying the environment as much as possible to meet the needs of each child

  • being aware that some children may need longer to feel confident engaging in an activity, such as balancing or climbing

  • encouraging the children to help each other

  • modifying the activity to suit different abilities

  • using positive language when accidents occur.

Good practice

Early years providers should develop a clear approach to risky play that balances the benefits of stimulating, challenging and exciting play with a rigorous risk assessment. Good practice includes:

  • developing a risky play policy which is communicated to all early years staff and parents

  • undertaking and reviewing risk assessments regularly

  • modifying the environment and activities as much as possible to meet the needs of each child

  • ensuring that children are always adequately supervised

  • ensuring that hazards are eliminated and that playground apparatus complies with safety standards and is properly maintained

  • educating staff and parents about the benefits of risky play

  • using positive language when discussing risky and adventurous play.

Further information