Risky outdoor play has been a natural and important part of children’s lives for generations. Human beings are ‘hardwired’ to take risks, from an early age. From babies learning to crawl, walk and then run, to seeing a tree and wanting to climb it. Children are designed by nature to teach themselves emotional resilience by playing in risky, emotion-induced ways. Nonetheless, we are now living in a culture of fear. Sadly, changes in attitudes of exposure to risk is having a negative impact on the opportunities for children to play freely in the outdoors. Our increasingly risk averse society is making physically active, playful risk taking ever more difficult for children to practise, and it is this aversion towards risky play that is denying children the opportunities to learn valuable lessons. It is through pushing the boundaries of their physicality, that children learn the skills and abilities they need for life. Not only this but restricting children’s ability to engage in risky outdoor play may also contribute to risk-taking that is more dangerous as children mature into adolescents.

Think back to your childhood, what were your fondest memories of outdoor play? No doubt they comprised an element of risk. I remember as a child I had a skateboard. My friends and I would sit on the board and race downhill, picking up immense speed as we headed towards the road at the bottom of the hill. Yes, let me re-iterate this. We intentionally did something extremely dangerous simply because it was fun. We would have to calculate our exact ‘lean’ on the board as to turn it just enough round the corner, so we guaranteed that it didn’t veer into the road, and equally, ensure not to overturn it, thus skinning our knuckles on the path in the process by leaning too far in. Now I am by far not telling you to go out and play ‘chicken’ in the road on your skateboard, but we need to look more closely at why we did this?  The fact is that children will instinctively add challenge to their play as they seek to experience new sensations and experiments to test their limits, and it is for that very reason we need to allow them to climb a little higher, run a little faster and jump a little further, so that they can rehearse real-life risky situations, to discover what is safe and what is not.  Moreover, whilst skill mastery and overcoming fear are rewarding in themselves for the children, failure from risky play endeavours also help children learn to cope with disappointments, builds resilience and promotes self-confidence.  By practicing with potentially dangerous behaviours as children, we are training our brains and bodies to be able to cope as adults, when it really counts. In summary, our brain instinctively puts us in ‘dangerous’ situations through play so that as adults we are able to survive those situations. We need to learn to fall as children so we can fall as adults.

Spending time outdoors has many benefits to physical and mental health and wellbeing. Risk taking is good for children. It is exhilarating, and children want and need to take risks. Our role as adults is to make sure we enable this, without placing them in danger. By taking risks children develop confidence, persistence, and resilience to be able to cope with challenging situations.  Important life skills that we all want our children to have. They develop resilience and confidence through making their own decisions and taking risks. Children need to see that even if they fail, they can try again.  In doing this, they will gain the positive self-esteem that comes with mastering a new skill. 

Through our approach at Acorn, we follow a nature-based pedagogy, this involves learning through, in and about nature and embraces the ideas of sustainability. Our Forest Schools, run both in and out of our nurseries, provide an exciting educational experience for children in the natural environment and offer lots of opportunities for risk taking and challenge. Children are encouraged to climb, slip and slide in mud, traverse small streams, swing on rope swings and use tools such as hammers and potato peelers for whittling wood. It is also important to recognise that risk is not always physical. Within this safe environment, children can explore personal risk. For some simply being in woodland, especially if this is an unfamiliar environment, is an emotional challenge, whereas others may dabble with their proximity to spiders. For different children, not unlike that of adults, risk is very different. Some of us may be happy to parachute out of a plane, or bungee from a bridge, whilst others the thought of an overdue book at the library provides that same adrenaline rush. That feeling where you are both scared and happy at the same time, where your heart beats faster, feeling joy and fear simultaneously.


The spread of new technology is changing the very nature of childhood. Mobile phones and the internet have opened new ways for children to engage and interact, shrinking the horizon of childhood. This is both ironic and tragic. We deprive children of free, risky play, seemingly to protect them from danger, however in the process, we are setting them up for harm. Harm not necessarily from the digital world we see ourselves growing accustomed to, but sadly harm from spending time together outside with others, valid, positive experiences that are essential for future wellbeing.

As the Health and Safety Executive says ‘no child will learn about risk if they are wrapped in cotton wool’. 


Kim Langstaff