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Environments and Risky Play

Environments and Risky Play

by Nicole Fravel

Environments that Encourage Risky Play in Early Childhood Programs

Last month’s preschool and blog article covered the benefits of risky play in early childhood. Risky play promotes resilience, builds confidence and encourages problem solving. Early childhood programs can encourage children to take considered risks by providing an environment suited to risk taking.

There are a number of different ways that children can take physical risks. They can be challenged by height or other natural dangers, like rushing water or uneven terrain. Challenges can be brought to the environment in the form of tools. And children can create their own challenges by running at top speed, engaging in rough and tumble play or wandering off and “getting lost.” Each type of challenge offers a corresponding opportunity to overcome it.

What type of environments promote risky play?

Nature and forest schools offer multiple built-in opportunities for children to engage in risky play. Dr. Marianna Brussoni, from the University of Vancouver in BC, rates risk-taking environments on the number of affordances they provide. An affordance is what a toy or environment “invites” someone to do with it. For example, a stick has an unlimited number of affordances because it can be anything the child can imagine -- a fairy wand, a digging tool, a fort support, land art.

In addition to sticks, natural environments offer many loose parts with unlimited affordances, both small and large. Small moveable parts like rocks, shells, leaves are easily accessible natural loose parts. But trees to climb, creeks to cross, and ferns to hide in are also loose parts that let children stretch their physical and intellectual limits. Dr. Carla Gull, who moderates the Facebook Group “Loose Parts Play,” believes that fire, wind and weather can also be thought of as loose parts because people and animals must adapt to these natural forces .

Perhaps paradoxically, Dr. Brussoni points out that exposing children to risks actually prevents injury. In a study she performed looking at children in natural environments vs. traditional playgrounds, there were actually more injuries on the playground than in a forest or next to running water. She believes this is because traditional playgrounds do not offer many affordances. Children move in the same ways on the same equipment, without needing to think about their bodies’ relation to the space. In more open-ended environments, children are more in tune with how their bodies move through space and the ways in which they need to regulate their movements to the changes in the environment.

Bringing Risk to Your Program

While a large natural area provides daily risks for children, there are simple

ways for all programs to bring objects and activities with multiple affordances to any setting. If the idea of exposing children to risk is a new (and/or scary) concept for teachers, start small, with loose parts. According to Simon Nicholson, an architect who is the “father” of loose parts theory, a loose part is any material with no specific directions that can be put together, take apart, moved or otherwise manipulated in multiple ways. Tree cookies, shells, acorns, rocks and leaves are easily brought into any classroom for dramatic play, math, science or art. Larger loose parts, like wooden boards and crates, tires, bamboo sticks and tree stumps can be added to the outdoor space at any preschool.

Another easy way to introduce risk to any setting is to start a woodworking station operated under supervision of parent volunteers or teachers. Children can start small by sanding blocks of wood, driving nails into boards or operating hand drills.

In fact, the largest impediment to allowing children to learn from taking risks may be teacher and parent attitudes. When I first started teaching preschool some 15 years ago, the rule in my classroom was that block towers couldn’t be any taller than oneself. It was a rule I had heard often in other classrooms, and it certainly seemed like a sensible safety precaution.

Now that I am more comfortable with a level of rough and tumble play and of allowing children to build tall structures with blocks, I guide children to come up with their own safety measures and parameters. When block structures start to get tall, I talk to the children about balance and support, about which direction the structure will likely tip and where they and their friends need to be to be safe, about setting up a yarn circle perimeter around the structure so that no one is playing where it will tip …

Risk taking is not a recipe for a classroom free for all, but an invitation for children and teachers to learn from and conquer risks together. In next month’s post, I’ll talk a bit more about how to manage risk to make them safe and attainable in early childhood programs. In the meantime, I encourage you to take a little risk yourself by trying something new with the children you teach.


Kids more active, less depressed when playgrounds include natural elements. (A summary of Dr. Brussoni’s study)

Loose Parts Play. (Includes a list of possible loose parts to bring to any program.)

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