How to Support Risk Taking in Outdoor Play

Learning to negotiate risk is a vital skill that everyone needs to develop. Without it, we’d all take poorer decisions, make a lot more mistakes and suffer unnecessary injuries. While it is important that children are given the opportunity to learn risk taking skills, the challenge for schools is how to balance risk with safety. Here, we’ll look at some of the ways that schools can support risk taking in the playground while minimising the risk of injury.

Why risk is important in the playground

Children in EYFS and primary settings can benefit physically, mentally and emotionally from risky play. Any playground activity with an element of risk will cause children to assess what those risks are. They’ll ask whether the activity is safe or dangerous and consider whether their decisions will get them or their friends hurt or even into trouble. Though at first they likely to make the occasional mistake, over time, they will fine-tune their risk taking skills and learn a healthy respect for danger. Once learnt, these skills can be applied in far more risky situations than those they experience in the safety of the playground.

While some children benefit from learning when a risk is dangerous, others are given important freedoms by learning that some risks are not as hazardous as they think. The unnecessary avoidance of risk in childhood can have life-limiting consequences. If not dealt with, people will shy away from opportunities in life, not because they cannot do them but because they fear the risk. Overcoming small risks in the playground can help the child to become a confident adult and a better decision-maker.

Additionally, risky play can also improve a child’s ability to solve problems. They may, for example, avoid climbing across a traversing wall if they think they may fall, but if they look at different ways of getting from one side to another, they may discover a safer route and manage to complete the challenge.

Children need to begin to develop these essential life skills when they are young. The earlier they do, the sooner they can be given greater independence in the knowledge that they know how to avoid danger both in the playground and in other areas of their lives. Of course, supervision is important at an early age, but children should not be micromanaged.

Types of playground risk

There are lots of ways to offer risky play in the playground. Giving children access to heights is one of the most common, such as play towers, climbing equipment, traversing walls or even climbing a tree. Speed is another form of playground risk and can include playing games or sports where children can collide or on equipment like skipping ropes, swings, sea-saws and roundabouts where there’s the potential to fall.

Children will find risk everywhere in the playground, even if it's only mildly hazardous. They will ask, ‘Will I get wet through if I play with the magnetic water wall?’, ‘Will I get mucky if I play on the mud kitchen?’, ‘Will I fall off the trike on the playground roadway?’ There are psychological risks that children will face too: ‘Will they say no if I ask to play?’, ‘Will people laugh at me if I fall off?’

Playground design for risk taking

While it is important to offer opportunities for risk taking, schools and nurseries have an obligation to make sure that the playground is safe to use. This means that any risks are controlled to minimise the potential for injury.

Playground design should include the creation of zones so that activities of one kind don’t interfere with another. A child might be able to assess the risks of using jungle bars but they are not likely to have factored in being hit by a football halfway across. Good design will ensure that these activities are kept separate from each other.

A key element of playground safety, especially when risk taking is involved, is the type of surfacing used. The use of shock-absorbing playground surfacing, like wetpour, artificial grass and rubber mulch, reduces the risk of injury when placed under climbing frames or in areas where children are moving at speed.

There is also the equipment itself. While we’ve already mentioned the types of risk taking equipment that can be used, it is important that they are well made, properly installed and regularly maintained. All equipment and surfacing installed on your premises must meet the necessary safety standards.

The final safety consideration is the way the playground is used. Zones should be supervised so that particular pieces of equipment don’t have too many children playing on them at the same time and it can be advisable, for some activities, to keep older children and younger children playing separately.

Conclusion

As adults, our experience of risk taking helps us to stay safe every day. It also helps us take advantages of opportunities, knowing the risks are small. Children need to start developing these skills at an early age and the perfect place is in the playground, under supervision and in an environment that has been specially designed to be safe.

If you need help designing a playground that offers safe opportunities for risk taking, visit our Free Playground Design Service page or give us a call on 01282 43 44 45.

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