Unstructured Outdoor Play & Risky Play

Outdoor free play, especially in versatile natural environments, is important for developing motor fitness and abilities, environmental awareness and navigation competencies, as well as promoting creativity. When children are playing outdoors, they move more and sit less, especially when they are not supervised and being allowed to play in their neighbourhood without an adult helps children figure out how to get around, gain independence, and spend more time playing with friends

Play in natural environments can be especially beneficial because it is full of loose materials (e.g., sand, sticks, water, mud) that the child can use to let their imagination shape play, as well as help them appreciate nature. 

Things to consider:

  • Hazard vs risk. Hazards are items or situations where the source of harm is not obvious to the child, such that the potential for injury is hidden (e.g., a broken railing). Risk is a situation where the child can recognize and evaluate the challenge and decide on a course of action (e.g., climbing a tree). Focus on managing hazards, while maintaining risks.
  • Risky play is defined as thrilling and exciting play where the child is uncertain of the outcome and can include the possibility of physical injury. Types of risky play include play at height, speed, near dangerous elements (e.g., water, fire), with dangerous tools, rough and tumble play (e.g., play fighting), and where there is the potential for disappearing or getting lost. Risky play can be important for promoting physical activity, social health and risk management skills. 
  • Risk changes over time as the child moves through developmental milestones and gains more experience with the world. What is a hazard at one age, becomes risky or no risk at another age.
  • Risky play can look different for different children, depending on their abilities and interests (e.g., “getting lost” for a toddler could be a hidey hole in some bushes, whereas for an older child it could be wandering the neighbourhood with friends).
  • The likelihood of serious injury resulting from play is low and the benefits of playing outside generally far outweigh the risks.

Check out this online tool to help parents and caregivers gain the confidence to allow their kids to engage in more outdoor play.