Nursery Management

Risky play – What are the benefits in Early Years?

  • Risky play – What are the benefits in Early Years?

Melanie Pilcher, policy and standards manager at the Early Years Alliance, discusses the importance of allowing children to engage in risky play

When parents entrust the care of their children to us, they must be able to do so securely in the belief that we are caring for their children, meeting their learning and development needs and keeping them safe at all times.

The early years sector achieves this by operating within a regulatory framework that ensures that the safety and protection of young children is paramount. The Early Years Foundation Stage (2014) states that:

Providers must ensure that they take all reasonable steps to ensure staff and children in their care are not exposed to risks and must be able to demonstrate how they are managing risks.

When we create and maintain a safe environment, we need to pay heed to our legal duties but should also take into account the fact that some risky play is acceptable.

The risk of falling off larger pieces of play equipment is quite high. However, we can minimise the risk by ensuring that there is adequate supervision, correct positioning of the equipment (away from windows, or walls), crash mats and some ‘rules’ set by adults that are appropriate for the individual child’s level of understanding.

In order to remove all risk, you’d have to ban the use of such equipment altogether. But the benefits of the activity happening, with the risk that some children will fall, includes children being able to expand their skills, as they risk climbing higher, reaching further or balancing for longer.

Children will also learn how to fall, how to pick themselves up and start over again. Equally importantly, they will begin to understand the consequences of risky play beyond their current ability.

Allowing risky play

Within the structure of health and safety, we must always remember that risky play is a very important part of a child’s development.

But when linked to the care and protection of young children, the word ‘risk’ raises all sorts of concerns. This is especially so when we consider that the process of risk management through risk assessment means that we should remove or at least minimise all perceived dangers.

Unfortunately, this often means that we err too far on the side of caution. There is a huge difference between putting a child at risk and allowing a child to partake in risky play, however.

Case study

How will three-year-old Lily ever know that the bridge she has created between two milk crates is safe if she does not take a tentative step onto it?

Only by having the time and opportunity to test it out will she realise that it is too wobbly, that the materials she has chosen are not strong enough or that the supporting structure is not stable.

Lily must have the opportunity to test out her ideas and find solutions for herself wherever possible. You may be tempted to step forward to stop the activity, telling Lily, “You’ll fall and hurt yourself; this isn’t what these milk crates are for.”

But while someone may describe this as ‘good accident prevention’, it is not good risk management. A much better approach would be to hold back for a moment and observe the learning that is taking place.

What will Lily do when the bridge wobbles? Will she continue anyway? If she is determined to stand on the unsafe structure then some adult intervention is going to be justified.

But will Lily realise that the task that has thoroughly engaged her for the past ten minutes is not yet complete and, with the determination central to confident learners, try again and again until she has got it right?

Of course, you can intervene at any stage with suggestions such as “Why don’t you place the crates closer together, Lily, and see what happens then?” The rewards for Lily are obvious as she succeeds in her task.

Meanwhile, you gain valuable insight into Lily’s emerging skills and will be able to plan for appropriate activities to help her develop them further.

Valuing risky play

If we are not careful, safety concerns can get in the way of every child’s fundamental right and need to ‘play’. In 2008, Managing Risk in Play Provision: A Position Statement, produced by the Play Safety Forum said:

All children both need and want to take risks in order to explore limits, venture into new experiences and develop their capacities, from a very young age and from their earliest play experiences. Children would never learn to walk, climb stairs or ride a bicycle unless they were strongly motivated to respond to challenges involving a risk of injury.

The Play Forum’s Position Statement is focused more on play equipment and playgrounds. However, the message is relevant to children’s play in a much broader context too. If we are to truly value play then we must also value risky play.


Children do not set out to deliberately hurt themselves, but they do not always realise their own limitations or the limitations of the environment that surrounds them.

As they grow and develop there are going to be times when they will have to make choices about what is safe to attempt and what is not. How can they ever do this confidently if they have never experienced acceptable levels of risky play upon which to test their judgements?

Whilst there is quite rightly much emphasis on safeguarding children in early years settings, we must be confident in our own competence and ‘take a risk’ ourselves.

Children need and instinctively want to be able to take risks so that they can test their abilities and strengths. What better environment for them to do so than that of an early years setting where you’ve already removed hazards not readily identifiable to young children and provided well-managed opportunities for appropriate risk-taking to take place?

Risky play and additional needs

Some children with disabilities will have to have many things done for them in life because it is quicker, safer and easier for those people taking care of their needs.

For them, having the opportunity to partake in risky play is even more vital, as they may not always have the same freedom of choice given to their non-disabled peers.

A child with mobility problems may have to wait for you to ask them, and might need you to take them to the climbing frame. But once there, they will enjoy the challenge of getting to the first or second level.

The sense of pride and achievement will be as great, if not greater, because the risk was higher and the challenge harder.

For more information on health and safety and risk management, visit the Early Years Alliance.