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The power of outdoor play for children

By Dr Vicki Hargraves

Our webinar with Mariana Brussoni and Susan Herrington examined outdoor play, with a particular focus on risky play and nature play, and their importance in promoting a range of holistic outcomes for children in early childhood settings. Below are some of the key ideas discussed.

The importance of play in nature

Nature play involves play with natural elements such as plants, rocks, water, and sand. A range of research studies show that play in nature is found to help reduce stress, develop mental curiosity and scientific thinking, and improve sensory-motor development, children’s cooperative behaviours, physical fitness and sleep.

The importance of risky play

Risky play is defined as exciting or thrilling play, in which the child is pushing themselves and experimenting with what they can do, engaging with uncertainty and the possibility of physical injury. There are eight different kinds of risky play, including play at speed, play at height, play with dangerous elements, rough-n-tumble play, play in which there is a chance of getting lost, play with impact, and vicarious risky play (watching other children’s risk-taking).  Children who engage in risky play tend to be more physically active, less sedentary, and have improved social relationships. Risky play is also important for enabling children to develop risk management skills.

Attitudes to risky play

People will be at very different points in their attitudes towards risky play. Some will be very comfortable with being outside and with allowing children to take risks. Others don’t have these experiences, or feel fearful and anxious that children will get hurt. It’s important to be accepting of this range, and see transforming attitudes as a journey involving many small steps. Begin by encouraging each other to remember your own early childhood play experiences, and what you really valued. Maintain an ongoing conversation with parents to discuss your approach to outdoor play and what children get out of it. This parent tool for encouraging positive attitudes might be helpful.

How to talk about risk with children

Saying “be careful” conveys your own anxiety to the child without offering any useful guidance. What children hear is that you don’t trust them. Instead, try sharing your feelings: “I am feeling a little unsettled in my stomach, what do you think I’m worried about?” Start the child on the path of thinking about risk: “What do you think you need to do next?” or “What do you think about that branch?” Also try counting to 17 before stepping in to intervene in a risky situation, letting the situation play out, and taking time to realise that children are more capable and confident than we think they are.

Play equipment and materials to offer children

Risky play will look different for every child, depending on their interests and capabilities. So, the best approach is for adults to provide an environment and the freedom to engage in risky play. The most useful play materials offer children diverse affordances. The most effective way to increase the affordances of your play space is to use loose parts, such as water, mud, sand, sticks, stones, tarps, and crates. There should be sufficient diversity and numbers of loose parts so children aren’t forced to share, and to encourage them to explore possibilities. Try to move away from supervision and policing play and towards trusting relationships in which you focus on mutual joy and connection.

Nature offers the greatest challenges for play. Use natural things like tree roots and logs which offer much more unpredictability than standardised equipment – is that branch going to hold me or not? Can I reach it? Use plants to creating sub-spaces and to provide play props. Aim to create environments that are filled with nature, that are beautiful and that have mystery.