Characteristics and Categories of Risky Play

Original Editor - Andrea Sturm
Top Contributors - Top Contributors - Robin Tacchetti, Jess Bell, Kim Jackson and Aminat Abolade

Outdoor Risky Play[edit | edit source]

Risky play is defined as thrilling and exciting forms of play that involve a potential risk of injury. Risk-taking occurs naturally when children play, as they seek and engage in challenging and risky forms of physical play.[1] Ambiguity as well as uncertainty are understood to be important characteristics of risky play.[2] In risky play, children engage in something that is new and unknown for them, which includes a feeling of being on the borderline of control, and the possibility of getting hurt. This occurs even though, and to some degree also because, this kind of play relates to fears and thrills.[1] [3]

Research shows that toddlers have the ability to assess and manage potential risks when they play outside in natural environments. Even four to five year old children were reported to be able to balance their risk-taking decisions between their evaluation of positive and negative outcomes of the play. They use direct and indirect ways for assessing risks and developing their own risk management skills.[2] Toddlers’ engagement in risky play also promotes a sense of belonging through shared engagement in risky-play experiences and by developing a personal connection with the place. Furthermore, social belonging to the group becomes evident, when children demonstrate care and support towards each other. For example, this could occur in situations when a child's peer stumbles and falls whilst navigating through a challenging environment.[4] Therefore, risky play is influenced by the sociocultural context, which helps to develop children’s sense of belonging by responding to and interacting with the affordances in their environment.[4]

Activities that are considered as risky play activities can be found in various types of play: construction play, exercise play, symbolic play and also in play with rules. Such play activities can be performed in indoor and outdoor settings, but especially natural settings are most inviting for free and risky play.[5] Nature is an ideal environment for all children (independent of different developmental levels) to engage in risky play. Also, children themselves prefer playing with natural materials and in natural environments.[2] There are individual and environmental characteristics of outdoor risky play. For example, individual characteristics describe how children carry out the play (e.g., the chosen height to climb). Environmental characteristics may pertain to how much risk the play environment would afford (for example, how steep cliffs are).[2] [6] Taking risks is accompanied by exciting feelings. Children might express these feelings with signs of exhilaration (for example, happy yelling, smiling, shrieking and enthusiasm), fear (for example, by scared and worried facial expressions, whining, withdrawing), and a combination of both emotions.[2]

The table below by the Digital Futures Commission illustrates what activities children prefer the most.

Screenshot 2023-03-08 at 8.27.23 AM.png


Risky play is defined in the video below by Ellen Sandseter:

In this second video, Ellen Sandseter demonstrates The Power of Play: Risky Play:

Categories of Outdoor Risky Play[edit | edit source]

Risky play primarily occurs outdoors when children freely engage in adventurous physical activities. Often, it involves a feeling of letting go of control and overcoming fears when their play includes high speed or great heights. Examples of such activities are sliding, swinging, climbing trees and climbing towers, climbing up and jumping down from big rocks or small cliffs, balancing on stones or wind fallen trees. Risky play also includes shooting with arrows and bows, whittling with knives, fencing with sticks, and riding the bike at high speed.[3]

Over the years, eight categories of risky play have been identified.[2] Sandseter investigated various kinds of risky play through interviews and observations of preschoolers and staff in Norway. She originally identified six categories of risky play (A-F).[3] In 2017, Rasmus Kleppe, a PhD student of Sandseter, identified two more categories of risky play of toddlers aged 1-3 years (G, H):[6]

Category Risk Sub-categories
A: Great heights Danger of injury from falling Climbing

Jumping from still or flexible surfaces

Balancing on high objects

Hanging/swinging at great heights

B: High speed Uncontrolled speed and pace that can lead to collision with something (or someone) Swinging at high speed

Sliding and sledging at high speed

Running uncontrollably at high speed

Bicycling at high speed

Skating and skiing at high speed

C: Dangerous tools Can lead to injuries and wounds Cutting tools: Knifes, saws, axes

Strangling tools: Ropes, etc.

D: Dangerous elements Where children can fall into or from something Cliffs

Deep water or icy water

Fire pits

E: Rough-and-tumble Where the children can harm each other Wrestling

Fencing with sticks, etc.

Play fighting

F: Disappear/get lost Where the children can disappear from the supervision of adults, get lost alone Go exploring alone

Playing alone in unfamiliar


G: Play with impact Where children are crashing – either themselves or an object – into something Throw themselves onto a mattress

Crash their tricycle into a fence

H: Vicarious risk Where the risk is only observed by the children Watching other children’s risky play for a length of time

Some of the original categories were perceived as risky by both the children and staff (category A, B, and E); others were perceived as risky either only by staff (category C and D), or only by the children (F).[3]

Risky Play - Harmful or Beneficial?[edit | edit source]

Young children actively seek out thrills and fearful situations, for example when swinging, and jumping from high places, or from stone to stone in a tiny river. Much of children’s play is related to fears. The motivation for engaging in risky play is their intention of experiencing excitement and joy when mastering a potentially dangerous situation; and the thrill, when they are on the dangerous edge, aware of the fear related to the possible outcome, including injury. Children prepare for handling real dangers and risks, sometimes repeating their play even obsessively because they experience pleasurable excitement.[3] Therefore, engaging children in risky play is one of the best ways of injury prevention that we can offer, because their experiences lead to the ability to manage risks.[8]

What is a Risk?[edit | edit source]

Risk in the context of risky play is understood as a situation whereby a child can recognise and evaluate a challenge and decide on a course of action and response to the challenge. The negative interpretation of risk led to a view of risk and hazard as being synonymous.[8] That is why the use of the term ‘risky play' has been criticised as being potentially misleading, and other terms such as ‘curious’ or ‘adventurous play’ have been suggested.[5] But a risk is not necessarily just negative. It can also be defined as situations in which we have to make choices among alternative courses of action without knowing the outcome.[8] Children acquire coping mechanisms to handle risky situations by engaging in playful methods to evaluate and conquer risks, adapting to failure and adverse outcomes of their choices. This process cultivates resilience and self-sufficiency as they develop strategies to manage and overcome risky circumstances.[9]

What is a Hazard?[edit | edit source]

A hazard is understood as a danger in the environment that could seriously injure or endanger a child and is beyond the child’s capacity to recognise.[8] Considering the developmental and physical literacy skills of children engaging in risky play, risks that may pose hazards are eliminated from the play environment, taking into account the child's age.[8] Nevertheless, there are situations where hazards cannot be eliminated. In certain parts of the world, children are raised in war-torn areas where landmines pose a grave danger to their lives. Similarly, they may reside in regions where encounters with wild or venomous creatures are frequent. Extreme weather conditions like intense heat or cold, long-term health risks associated with sun exposure, and air pollution can also restrict a child's ability to play outdoors without limitations. Additionally, depending on the societal context, elevated levels of traffic or even violence can contribute to an unsafe environment, curtailing a child's freedom to engage in unrestricted outdoor play.

Adult Supervision[edit | edit source]

Adults as supervisors are important in risky play. Higher levels of supervision are considered to result in lower injury rates.[1] [10] Adults can assume the role of coaches and mentors, supporting children in their decision-making processes as they venture into the realm of their fears during play. By enabling children to make choices that entail a risk of injury, while providing a caring adult presence to explore potential outcomes, their comprehension of the functioning of the world expands. This fosters their development into independent and capable decision makers.

How caregivers and adults will supervise children is different in, and influenced by, various cultures. Supervising adults' perception and evaluation of a situation’s risk will influence a child’s risk taking in play.[1] [9] Even if supervising adults appreciate the benefits of challenging play on both child health and development, national litigation and health safety regulations can hamper a child’s ability to engage in risky play.[9] Legal rules and regulations differ from country to country, and are usually intended to avoid serious injuries.[9] However, their interpretation and enforcement can differ as they are also influenced by the local culture. For example, air pollution, child molesters and lawsuits are reported to be rare in Scandinavia, and therefore associated with these countries’ liberal attitude toward risky outdoor play. Keeping children safe and, at the same time, allowing stimulating activities and providing environments to promote physical and psychological development, is the challenging responsibility of supervising adults, but worth the outcome. At times, this means that supervising adults will also have to stretch their own limits pertaining to risk.[1]

Risky Play Supportive Environments[edit | edit source]

Children engage in greater physical activity after being introduced to a risky play supportive environment containing loose parts.[10] Adventurous outdoor playgrounds enable the use of natural elements (trees, hedges, tree trunks, small hills, sand, grass, soil or bark chipping surfaces; and loose parts (rubber tyres, milk crates, cable spools, planks).[5] Constructing a ‘tyre’ playground increased the amount of time that children engaged in active play from 16% to 39%. Children were observed to spend significantly more time on adventurous playgrounds (75 min) than on traditional playgrounds where structures are pre-fabricated (21 min).[10] The opportunity to access challenging, stimulating and varied play environments is one of the main premises for children to engage in risky play. For example, if children have access to climbable features it is likely that they will perceive the affordance to climb, and push their own limits for mastery.[1] When children are restricted to engage in sufficiently challenging activities they are reported to seek challenges in other areas of the physical environment, resulting, at times, even in inappropriate risk taking.[9]

Ethical Challenges of Risky Play[edit | edit source]

Risky play can pose ethical challenges to adults because they have the power to influence the scope of the children’s activity and play. They set the boundaries for what children are allowed and now allowed to do. Adults have an ethical responsibility to ensure that children can sufficiently engage in meaningful and adventurous play, but also for the possible consequences of these activities.

Finding a reasonable balance between letting go and preventing harm is the general ethical challenge. This creates a tension between two ethical considerations, doing good (beneficence) and avoiding harm (non-maleficence). The first ethical perspective strives to responsibly create positive and uplifting experiences for children, while the second aims to responsibly protect the children from harm. Assessing a situation of risky play relies on a reasonable balance between these two ethical perspectives by the supervising adult. The ethics of risky play embraces the task of offering children a chance to become actively familiar with risk and learn from it, but under reasonably safe conditions. When ethically evaluating a risky play situation, the supervising adult should consider the likelihood of possible harm occurring, and its seriousness. The risk assessment should consider both the short-term benefits and harms and the long-term ones. It could be that keeping children passive may lead to fewer instances of harm in the short term, but nonetheless can be harmful to their long-term development: By gaining systematic knowledge about what inhibits and promotes children’s development, this knowledge can help to establish an informed balance between contradictory ethical perspectives, which can be reconciled by a reasoning process about what are healthy and good conditions for children to grow up.[11]

The supervising adult can initially have a moral intuition about what is the right decision, and this could be tested through ethical analysis. For example, the first reaction to a challenging question—should the child be allowed to climb that tree?—is sometimes based on gut feelings, which can help to navigate ethical decision-making processes.[12] Another aspect of ethical analysis of decision-making in a risky situation is to consider the pros and cons, and to think about possible alternatives. Even under reasonably safe conditions, children's play can result in injury - and the risk of allowing a specific activity might have seemed perfectly acceptable for the child. But for some reason or “moral bad luck”, it went wrong. As a result, the supervising adult may risk being subjected to moral criticism and condemnation. At times, an adverse outcome may affect the assessment of what a person has done or failed to do. These can be situations in which the leadership in a therapy practice, a kindergarten or in a school will be put to a serious test, and needs to morally protect and support their employees. Practitioners can facilitate discussions amongst themselves and with parents and guardians about the benefits of risky play and reasonable levels of risk in the activities children are encouraged to engage in. Through ethical reflection, we can clear up misunderstandings, identify precise reasons why other persons involved might disagree, argumentatively justify our position, and find solutions to keep a diverse group of people with different (moral) viewpoints collectively able to act.[11]

Resources[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 Sandseter EB. Restrictive safety or unsafe freedom? Norwegian ECEC practitioners' perceptions and practices concerning children's risky play. Child Care in Practice. 2012 Jan 1;18(1):83-101.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 Tangen S, Olsen A, Sandseter EB. A GoPro look on how children aged 17–25 months assess and manage risk during free exploration in a varied natural environment. Education Sciences. 2022 May;12(5):361.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 Sandseter EB. Characteristics of risky play. Journal of Adventure Education & Outdoor Learning. 2009 Jun 24;9(1):3-21.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Little H, Stapleton M. Exploring toddlers’ rituals of ‘belonging’through risky play in the outdoor environment. Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood. 2021 Jan 20:1463949120987656.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 Caprino F. When the risk is worth it: the inclusion of children with disabilities in free risky play. 2018 Feb 20;40–7.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Kleppe R, Melhuish E, Sandseter EB. Identifying and characterizing risky play in the age one-to-three years. European Early Childhood Education Research Journal. 2017 May 4;25(3):370-85.
  7. Digital Future Commision . 2021 Available from:
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 8.4 Sandseter EB, Kennair LE. Children's risky play from an evolutionary perspective: The anti-phobic effects of thrilling experiences. Evolutionary psychology. 2011 Apr 1;9(2):147470491100900212.
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 9.4 Little H, Sandseter EB, Wyver S. Early childhood teachers' beliefs about children's risky play in Australia and Norway. Contemporary issues in early childhood. 2012 Dec;13(4):300-16.
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 Brussoni, M., Gibbons, R., Gray, C., Ishikawa, T., Sandseter, E.B.H., Bienenstock, A., Chabot, G., Fuselli, P., Herrington, S., Janssen, I. and Pickett, W., 2015. What is the relationship between risky outdoor play and health in children? A systematic review. International journal of environmental research and public health, 12(6), pp.6423-6454.
  11. 11.0 11.1 Kvalnes Ø, Sandseter EBH. Risky Play: An Ethical Challenge | SpringerLink [Internet]. Chams, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, Springer Nature; 2023 [cited 2023 Feb 13]. 113 p.
  12. Sturm A, Ager AL, Roth R. Western ideals and global realities–physiotherapists’ views on factors that play a role in ethical decision-making: an international qualitative analysis. European Journal of Physiotherapy. 2022 Dec 13:1-3.