In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Risky Play in Early Childhood Education

  • Introduction
  • General Overview and Conceptualizations of Risk and Safety in Play
  • The Characteristics of Risky Play
  • Benefits of Risky Play for Children’s Development and Learning
  • Environments for Risky Play
  • Educator/Practitioner Pedagogy and Attitudes Toward Risky Play
  • Early Childhood Education Policy and Risky Play
  • Professional Development Supporting Risky Play

Education Risky Play in Early Childhood Education
Helen Little
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 October 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756810-0307


There has been growing concern in recent years that an emphasis on safety and overprotective supervision of children’s play has reduced children’s access to unstructured, challenging physical play, especially in outdoor environments. This risk-aversive approach in turn has implications for children’s health and development. Increasingly researchers are challenging the impact of this risk aversion on children’s play by highlighting the positive outcomes of risk taking for children’s learning and development. During the early childhood years, children learn, develop, and build social relationships with peers and adults in a dynamic process, and risky play is a key context in which children learn about themselves and their capabilities. As a relatively early-21st-century topic of research, much of the early research originated in Norway and Australia. The Norwegian research generally reflects a more liberal approach to children’s risky play, but more recently, research conducted in other countries suggests there is a growing movement toward the provision of risky play opportunities in Early Childhood Education (ECE) contexts internationally. The research examines a range of individual, social, and environmental factors that influence the extent to which children have opportunities to engage in risky play; that which is reported here reflects diverse contexts associated with ECE from traditional preschools/kindergartens to nature preschools. This article summarizes the research to provide an understanding of the benefits of risky play and how conditions are created for children’s risky play and learning in early childhood education settings. While many of the publications address multiple factors associated with risky play, they have been organized as themes exploring risky play from different perspectives broadly aligned with individual, social, and environmental influences. The first section introduces resources that provide a general overview of children’s engagement in risky play. This is followed by the first of the six themes that have explored factors associated with risk taking in play in the context of early childhood education. Resources within this first theme describe the characteristics of this type of play. The second theme explores the Benefits of Risky Play for Children’s Development And Learning. The third theme, Environments for Risky Play, examines the physical features and resources available in the outdoor environment that promote risky play. The next two themes relate to the main factors that either support or hinder children’s opportunities for risk taking in play: Educator/Practitioner Pedagogy and Attitudes Toward Risky Play, and the ECE policy context. The final theme examines the potential for professional development and strategies for building educator/practitioner knowledge and capacity to support children’s risky play. Together these themes highlight important research within the topic of risky play in early childhood education and provide insight into ways of supporting children to accept challenges and move out of their comfort zone though this type of play.

General Overview and Conceptualizations of Risk and Safety in Play

The resources in this section provide a general overview of the importance of opportunities for risky play and perspectives on risk and safety. Most of the resources included in this section are intended for a general audience of researchers, students, and practitioners interested in risky play in early childhood education contexts and aim to situate risky play provision in the broader discourse of risk and safety. Sandseter, et al. 2017 argues that the pursuit of risk-free, ‘safe’ play environments has had a detrimental impact on children’s learning and development and argues a more balanced approach to safety is needed. Tremblay, et al. 2015 outlines the process of the development of a “Position Statement on Active Play.” This position statement along with Harper 2017, and Yalçin and Tantekin Erden 2018 acknowledge that risk is an inherent part of children’s self-directed outdoor play that should be promoted. Tovey 2010 provides an overview of the positive outcomes of risk taking in play and discourses around risk aversion versus risk promotion. Similarly, Little 2017 outlines the characteristics and benefits of risky play and introduces the risk-benefit approach to balancing risk in play. Expanding on this, Little 2019 provides an overview of the benefits of risky play along with practical strategies for supporting children’s risky play while managing safety.

  • Harper, N. 2017. Outdoor risky play and healthy child development in the shadow of the “risk society”: A forest and nature school perspective. Child & Youth Services 38.4: 318–334.

    DOI: 10.1080/0145935X.2017.1412825

    This article examines the juxtaposition of forest and nature school perspectives that recognize the benefits of risky play as an inherent part of children’s experiences in natural outdoor environments with the overall societal perception of risk as dangerous situations associated with harm. This is a useful resource for those with an interest in nature school programs as a context for risky play.

  • Little, H. 2017. Risk-taking in outdoor play: Challenges and possibilities. In Outdoor learning environments: Spaces for exploration, discovery and risk-taking. Edited by H. Little, S. Elliott, and S. Wyver, 19–37. Abingdon, UK: Routledge.

    This chapter provides an overview of the characteristics of risky play and the associated benefits for children’s learning and development. The chapter introduces affordance theory to examine how the environment promotes risky play. The conclusion examines how educators can provide challenging physical outdoor play for children while ensuring safety by taking a risk-benefit approach to managing risk. The author also provides a useful summary of the topic for students and practitioners who are interested in introducing opportunities for risky play.

  • Little, H. 2019. Risky play and the outdoors. Everyday Learning Series 17.3. Canberra, ACT: Early Childhood Australia.

    This publication, aimed primarily at educators, provides an overview of risky play behaviors and outlines the benefits of risky play in a readily accessible format as an introduction to the topic. It provides practical ideas and strategies for supporting risky play while ensuring safety.

  • Sandseter, E. B. H., H. Little, D. Ball, D. Eager, and M. Brussoni. 2017. Risk and safety in outdoor play. In The SAGE handbook of outdoor play and learning. Edited by T. Waller, E. Ärlemalm-Hagsér, E. Hansen Sandseter, L. Lee-Hammond, K. Lekies, and S. Wyver, 113–126. London: SAGE.

    DOI: 10.4135/9781526402028.n8

    This chapter presents the argument that the adoption of workplace health and safety standards that have a zero tolerance for accidents has led to the creation of injury-free, ‘safe’ play environments for children that have reduced children’s opportunities for challenging and exciting active play. The chapter is a valuable resource for policy development aimed at adopting a balanced approach to play provision that recognizes the benefits of risky play.

  • Tovey, H. 2010. Playing on the edge: Perceptions of risk and danger in outdoor play. In Play and learning in the early years. Edited by P. Broadhead, J. Howard, and E. Wood, 79–94. Los Angeles: SAGE.

    This chapter identifies the characteristics and value of risky outdoor play. It considers the contrasting perspectives relating to risk and safety, and the influence on outdoor play provision. The author calls for a reconceptualization of risk and the adoption of pedagogical approaches that recognize risk-taking as an inherent part of children’s learning and development. A useful resource for students and practitioners.

  • Tremblay, M., C. Gray, S. Babcock, et al. 2015. Position statement on active outdoor play. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 12.6: 6475–6505.

    DOI: 10.3390/ijerph120606475

    This article outlines the process involved in the development of a Position Statement on Active Outdoor Play. The evidence base for the Position Statement and operational definitions of key terms related to active play, risk, safety, and liability that are outlined are important for the development of outdoor play policy in ECE contexts. A valuable resource for policymakers.

  • Yalçin, F., and F. Tantekin Erden. 2018. Risky play in Early Childhood Education: A risk worth taking. Elementary Education Online 17.4: 1847–1860.

    DOI: 10.17051/ilkonline.2019.506862

    The review of the risky play literature presented in this article identifies the main themes arising from the extant research to present the benefits of risky play. The review also identifies suggestions for creating safe environments for risky play. A useful overview for students and practitioners.

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