Does risky play in outdoors support all-round development

Project author:

Project summary:

An observational study of ways in which risky play in the outdoor environment supports children’s all-round development and how we support and engage staff to evaluate their practice and pedagogy.


Knight (2006, DES) suggests ‘In a challenging environment children will be able to test their abilities, learn from their mistakes and stretch themselves further to develop their physical and mental skills’.

This project  looked at the outdoor environment and the development of risky play and if it does supports children’s all-round development. It takes into account current documents and guidance, parental, children and staffs views. We used My world outdoors, Out to play and Froebelian approach – outdoor play and explorations. Scotland’s Outdoor Play and Learning Coalition Position Statement believes ‘ It promotes mental, social, and emotional wellbeing by helping to reduce stress, increase self-esteem and confidence, develop emotional resilience and build children and young people’s confidence in their own capabilities and ability to manage risks and deal with uncertainty’

Risky play may be a means of encouraging children to confront risksas challenges that can to be mastered rather than events to be feared (Sandseter & Kennair, 2011; Tovey, 2014). The ability to manage risks and the accompanying fear or adrenaline is an essential survival trait’ (Sandseter & Kennair, 2011).

The enquiry matters as it is an area of development within the nursery and we want to ensure that we develop the area to the highest quality we can ensuring safety for all. My purpose in undertaking such a project was to develop our nursery environment to create an effective, stimulating, learning environment. As stated in Out to Play:

Children will read the physical landscape and perceive play opportunities in their own way. You need to develop routines and ways of working that create a nurturing environment. It should be a constantly evolving space that changes in line with children’s interests and needs. Putting the SHANARI indicators at the heart of our practice and decision making not just as you plan but as the setting evolves. Staff need to reflect and ensure the space is always a motivating and challenging learning environment. Actively involving children in creating the learning environment and making the ethos of your setting evident to all’ (Scottish Government, 2018).

We want to support staff, children and families into a way of play and learning that has been curtailed due to COVID. I want to help develop confidence in all that we enable risky play without placing children in danger. Risk taking is exhilarating and we want, need children to be able to do so safely. Risk taking is good for children: taking risks is exhilarating, and children want and need to take risks. Our role as adults is to make sure we enable this, without placing them in actual danger. It is essential to evaluate the hazards honestly, not just focusing in on the worst-case scenario, but also considering the likelihood of serious injury and what children will gain by participating in the activity.


We are a new local authority build with a relatively flat area outdoors. It has a mixture of grass, soft tarmac and a mud area for digging and use in the mud kitchen. There is an open gazebo used for sitting and reading and a hobbit hut that is used as a well-being retreat, wooden planters filled with a variety of plants and a small slopped grass area that we are considering for an allotment.

Our staff team including the management team are new to working together and our early years practitioners are mainly newly qualified. We hoped this project would give the team a concrete focus and begin to develop a joint pedagogy developing us further as a team. We opened in the midst of COVID 19, where every day normal experiences were not allowed. Children had not been exposed to going to the park, soft plays or baby/toddler groups. We noted that children were not meeting their developmental milestones through observations and parents were unsure of allowing children to take part in play that involved risks. We discovered this through consultation with our parents about risky play and experiences offered at nursery.

Our outdoor area comes straight from our playroom and we are hoping just to allow free flow play from the indoors to the outdoors. We want to create lots of opportunities in the outdoor environment that encourage the children to be challenged at all levels. We want to ensure that our ethos, policies and pedagogy relate to the indoors and outdoors being one environment.


I had to consider how staff, parents and children would react to this project. I wanted to be able to offer support, guidance and information to all stakeholders to try and make this a positive experience for all.

I worked with staff to create mind maps for introducing risky play, What is risky play? what ways does risky play support children? Challenges of risky play? I wanted to take staff with me and to do this allowing them to share their thoughts and opinions and be involved from the start was important to me.

I sent individual questionnaires to parents by email to gather thoughts and views on risky play. I gave paper copies of a questionnaire to staff to complete .I wanted to gather lots of thoughts and opinions and the easiest way to access this was by emailing to all parents, many parents prefer being able to complete paperwork this way and will hopefully allow me to gather a greater range of feedback.

The focus group of children were given consent forms for parents to read and sign. The children were chosen as were key children to the staff that were participating. I had spoken to staff who had shown an interest in participating with the research project thus deciding on the children.

I observed the children at play and completed a mind map with the children about play and about changes made to nursery environment. I had wanted to gather the children’s thoughts and views on our nursery environment. These children arrive every day wanting to have fun, feel safe, learn, play with friends and explore, I wanted to know that we were providing what they wanted.

I decided that to display my findings I would use a floor book, as it would appeal to children and adults. It would contain the mind maps, the results of questionnaires, photos of the outdoors, children’s drawings and thoughts.

There are two gifts we should give our children, one is roots and the other is wings



Through observations of the children and staff I determined that children need opportunities to problem solve and experiment with taking risks to challenge themselves physically and mentally. They need time to practice new skills and develop their bodies. Children do need support to take these risks as part of their learning and development. Children will develop physically – by climbing  a little higher, running a  little faster or jumping a little further, emotionally – feeling out of control or overcoming fear, mentally – learning how to get out of trouble, learning your own boundaries and that of the environment around them. Children do benefit by expanding their skills and experience the consequences of taking risks beyond their current ability. Risks and challenge has been a proven method of integral development for children in places like Berlin and Nordic schools where their schools and parks include great heights, high speed, playing with ‘dangerous’ tools, playing near ‘hazardous’ elements such as fire and water. They also develop areas where rough and tumble play is encouraged creating a setting where children can get lost in their own imagination.

Staff must consider the duty of care to identify and reduce or eliminate risk. However, we need to take into account risks that area acceptable e.g., risk of falling of large play equipment is quite high, but the risk of harm is minimised by completing risk assessments, ensuring adequate supervision, correct positioning of equipment or matting and rules that are decided upon by staff and children. According to Great Grounds ‘schools with a risk adverse mind-set can deny children the opportunity for learning and development in play, replacing it with the fear of what might go wrong. For some children this can create risks itself with children making the wrong decisions as a result of insufficient experience of managing risk. Cautious children have their insecurities reinforced and are often not able to learn through experimentation.’

Through further observation and talking to children I saw that children’s well-being improves by being outdoors, resilience is developed through taking and managing risks outdoors in a safe environment, confidence increases through free play outdoors, where children have to make decisions, problem solve and manage boundaries. As Froebel argued, the quality of the environment and the interactions within it are crucial. The value of play and learning outdoors….. The child should experience nature ‘in all its aspects – form, energy, substance, sound and colour’. (Froebel in Lilley 1967:148).

Outdoor play and exploration

Through observation, we watched one child discover that they are braver than they believed themselves to be. Initially the child would only watch others and even with the offer of staff to support, she did not want to take part. She was encouraged to watch her friends and was keen to offer verbal support to them. Through watching her friends, she decided that she wanted to try.  She would stand next to the area, and she would touch the resources and over a period of time she stood on the bottom rung. She would stand here for ages watching everyone around her, some of her peers observed this and would give support of “well done” “You’re amazing”. She was so chuffed with this that she attempted to climb one more rung, it took longer and required adult side-by-side support, however with perseverance she done it. She has said she wants to get to the top like her friends and we are not there yet but given the support and her own determination, I believe she will get there. “It is argued that taking risks can have positive implications in terms of children’s developmental, social and emotional needs, as well as their overall health. By providing the opportunities for children to manage their own risks in a controlled environment, they will learn vital life skills needed for adulthood, and gain the experience needed to face the unpredictable nature of the world.” (Gill, 2007).


We saw that children developed a greater curiosity, the learning that happened through exploring, playing, taking things apart and questioning. Children developed a greater awareness of their own learning, they reflected more, they developed a greater determination along with concentration, persistence and satisfaction, and the play became more social as friendships, fairness, understanding of the rules and caring and support for others increased. We will continue to look at our development of risky play. We will look to develop it with parents who are new to the nursery as part of their induction

Research implications

To be completed

Practitioner enquiry

To be completed

Leadership learning

To be completed

Author and role

To be completed

Comments from other network members

What did you appreciate about this research? What forward-looking questions did it raise for you?

  1. Lauren Gray
    Lauren Gray
    26 May 2022 at 9:44 am

    I really enjoyed reading your report, thank you. It definitely made me think more about risky play and the huge benefits of it for the children, and staff. The one thing I will take away is, that revisiting the benefits of risky play with the children, staff, students and families is fundamental for children to learn through their play important life skills.

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  2. Hayley O'Donnell
    Hayley O'Donnell
    31 May 2022 at 3:21 pm

    What an interesting read. I agree that covid has caused an impact to experiences the children are exposed to and parents/ carers and staff confidence in allowing children to assess their own risks in play. It was lovely to read the many benefits you have observed which have came from risky play experiences. Reading your project has made me consider the risky play experiences within my setting. Thank you.

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