Making risky play less risky

Published on Tuesday, 07 September 2021
Last updated on Tuesday, 07 September 2021

Article hero image

We all know that allowing children to take risks when playing, such as in a wild play setting, is an excellent way to build skills, resilience, an understanding of their own limitations and self-confidence.

But it’s also our job to keep them safe while they’re in our care. It’s all well and good to say, ‘Let them climb trees/work with real tools/get lost out in nature,’ but what about bad falls, serious cuts, or any number of other things that can go wrong? 

Even with you there monitoring their safety, in uncontrolled situations there is always the chance for serious injury. Especially when you’re talking about adventurous but as-yet uncoordinated toddlers.

However, there are ways for children to experience the thrill and empowerment of risky play without being in any serious danger.

Te Whāriki states that in relation to ECE centres, “The environment is challenging but not hazardous for toddlers. While alert to possible hazards, kaiako support healthy risk-taking play with heights, speed, tests of strength and the use of real tools.”  

It’s important to note the difference here between risks and hazards.

In an article for He Kupu, Vicki Hanrahan and Kath Duncan make the distinction that taking a risk involves a challenging experience, “where safety is balanced against the challenge and there is no likelihood of serious injury. A hazard, on the other hand, alludes to a dangerous situation where there is potential for serious or fatal injuries.”

If you want to give the children in your care the advantage of risky play without taking on any serious risks, however, there are other options.

Suggestions for ways to engage in risky play often include:

  • Climbing high objects
  • Moving at high speeds
  • Using real tools
  • Rough and tumble play
  • Disappearing games (hide and seek)

Most often, people associate many of these risky-play activities with an unfettered exploration of nature - such as climbing trees or large rocks and risking serious falls. While wild play in natural environments is immeasurably beneficial for kids, very young children in early learning environments may not be ready for such adventures - and even if they are, their families often aren’t. 

Plus, there may be an issue with taking children physically off the premises and/or the simple obstacle of access: not all early learning services have a forest on their doorstep.

Instead, why not introduce the ideals of risky play into the existing play areas at your service, through specially designed play equipment, monitored construction projects, story time around an outdoor firepit, games of chase, and hide and seek - played outdoors if possible. 

The national curriculum states that, in care, “Children [should] experience activities that develop their gross and fine motor skills and offer varying degrees of physical challenge and reasonable risk. Such activities include climbing, balancing, hammering, hopping, turning, pouring and undertaking obstacle courses and construction projects.”

Here are some safer ways that you can let the children in your care enjoy risky play without it being hazardous for their safety:


Climbing frames such as the Pikler triangle, cube and associated accessories are a great way for babies and young toddlers to experience the thrill and independence of climbing by themselves but, with proper supervision, in a perfectly safe way.

Soft fall mats are useful to have on hand for tumbles and are equally useful to lay under climbing equipment designed for older children, such as balance beams, small rock-climbing walls and ladders leading up to slides. Children can still experience the challenge and satisfaction of taking these risks themselves, but without you worrying about serious injury.


Rope swings or normal playground swings, and trikes or balance bikes on ramps or inclines are easy and relatively safe ways to introduce the experience of speed to little kids. Even older babies can enjoy the thrill of sitting in a safety swing and being swung back and forth by a caregiver, and older children will love sitting on a bike or trike and freewheeling down a gentle slope. If using balance or pedal bikes, helmets may be a good idea to avoid bumped heads.


Children love to create, and they love working with more manageable versions of the tools adults use - think child-sized cookware, watering cans and vacuums in the home corner.

Being able to actually construct something using real tools and materials is a challenge, and very satisfying for them when they manage it. But you don’t have to go straight to knives and saws to add the risk of working with tools. Instead, invest in some quality child-sized tools like hammers and screwdrivers.

You can give older children a project such as making a box to be used as a birdfeeder, and with some scraps of wood, real nails and screws, and proper instruction and supervision, they will have great fun and build real skills without accidentally cutting off their fingers.

Rough and tumble:

Give children free range and as much space as you can to play games of chase without adult intervention. Both the chasers and the chasee get active play as a benefit, and the chasee has the added thrill of fear of being caught and working to evade their pursuers.


Hide and seek can be a simple way to introduce the risks of getting lost, being alone, and needing to find your way back to a group. Encourage children to range as far as they feel comfortable when hiding so that they really feel separated from you and their classmates.

If possible, stand back and let the children take turns being the seeker. This way the game will likely take a little longer, and the seeker will also get to feel the satisfaction of a challenging task achieved.

Related Articles

Article image

Why risky play is important for young children

Safely providing children the freedom to explore new experiences and challenges, and venture into territory that isn't 100 per cent safe.

Article image

How fewer toys leads to higher quality play

Raise Early Years director, Mandy Richardson describes how decluttering your child’s toy box to include a few simple open-ended play objects leads to higher quality and more sustained play.

Article image

How parents can support young children’s risky play

Risky play at home and how you can support your child to safely leave their comfort zone.