Risky Play - for beginners!

If you were able to tune in to last weeks Event Risky Play, you will have enjoyed a fantastic presentation with Tim Gill, exploring Risky Play and the concept of risk benefit analysis in early years care and education settings. This event allowed us to tap into our own values and beliefs on the outdoors and recall our own memories of outdoor play from childhood. While we are now living in a different time and indeed a different world, outdoor play and the opportunity for risk taking and risk analysis is more important than ever for our children.

So where do we start when introducing Risky Play?

The answer is…………. we start small!! Risk doesn’t always have to mean danger or risk of injury. While some forms of play do pose dangers, such as climbing trees, starting small can give you the opportunity to introduce challenge and help children learn how to observe, assess and make decisions for themselves.

During the presentation Tim shared a slide on activities to help broaden children’s horizons, so today we are going to explore this a little bit further and see how we can dip our toes into Risky Play.

Loose Parts Play

Loose Parts play involves engaging with a variety of open-ended materials to explore and create. It can include recyclable materials, unwanted household items and natural items. We always wonder why children often prefer playing with the box rather than the toy…. It’s because, often, the box presents children with more opportunity to be creative and use their imaginations. One idea for loose parts play is providing children with real life items such as ceramic dishes, metal pots and pans and utensils. Some may view these as risky because we don’t think it is appropriate for children to use ceramic materials in case they break or that a metal pot might be too big or heavy for them. These are understandable concerns, however, how will children learn to handle items carefully or get to explore different materials and their properties if we take all those opportunities away from them. Although plastic is often the favoured material for its durability and ease to clean, children need to be able to explore a range of materials and their properties such as wood, metal and ceramics. Introducing some new materials and helping children to understand how to handle them safely is a great way to offer them new challenges.


Everyday Nature

Nature provides us with an abundance of opportunity for exploration, and if you were at our talk with Biologist and Nature Expert Eanna Ni Leanna, you will have seen all of the wonderful ways to engage children in the outdoors. Children need the opportunity to develop their gross and fine motor skills, the opportunity to explore the natural environment using their different senses and the freedom to inquire and make sense of the world around them. If they pick up a leaf, maybe they are exploring its texture, or its shape and colour, maybe it reminds them of a leaf they found in the park. If we tell them to put it down because its dirty, we are taking from them all of these opportunities. Eanna had a wonderful idea for exploring and inquiring into wildlife and little creatures by using some logs and old carpet cuttings to attract them to some shelter. By leaving these items for a few days and then lifting them up you will see lots of little bugs and creepy crawlies. Imagine the fun children would have looking for bugs and setting up bug catchers to find them. The risk of harm or infection can be minimized by carrying out daily risk assessments before children go to play, removing hazards identified from the garden and implementing a good hand washing policy that is before and after outdoor play.

Mud Kitchens

How do you feel about mud kitchens? Do you have a mud kitchen in your service?  Mud kitchens or indeed, mud areas, are a wonderful sensory activity that allow children to develop a host of skills and learning dispositions. When playing with mud, children get to mix, measure, pour, mould, feel and touch, sieve, press and squeeze as well as learn about quantity, capacity and weight. Children can play co-operatively to dig for more mud, carry buckets of water, estimate and guess, think about and assess what they are doing and so much more. The risks involved include getting dirty and making a mess – maybe slipping in the mud. If we weighed up the pros and cons, I think we all know there are far more Pros. Imagine a muddy puddle develops on the grass from digging and rainwater – we tell the children not to jump into it in case they get wet and dirty, but what are they missing out on? Perhaps they were considering trying to jump over it, maybe they were assessing the situation, deciding whether their physical capabilities were up to the challenge. Perhaps they wanted to measure how deep the puddle is by walking into it and seeing how far up the muddy water goes on their leg. Maybe they just wanted to hear and feel the splashing and enjoy the freedom of movement and new sensations. By telling them they can’t, we are taking away opportunity for discovery and learning. A great idea is to invest in, or ask parents to invest in good waterproof clothing and boots for outdoor play so we are less worried about the risk of children getting dirty and wet.



When we think about tools, we probably think hammers and saws and but we can introduce tools to children in a relatively safe way while providing them with the opportunity to learn new skills. A tool can be described as a device or implement used to carry out a function and normally held in the hand. So, with this in mind, utensils can be considered tools and so can gardening tools such as shovels and rakes. Real life tools such as hammers and nuts and bolts can also have a place in play, under supervision of course. Providing children with a range of tools allows them to develop a multitude of skills and become competent in handling and using them. Have you ever considered giving a child a knife to cut fruit or butter bread? Perhaps children would enjoy using a hole puncher on a piece of art work they want to hang up. Would you allow them to use real gardening tools made of metal during outdoor play? Again, start small and support children to become responsible and independent in using tools and allow them the opportunity to think for themselves and problem solve.

As you can see from above examples, children can be challenged and have the opportunity for risk without there always being a threat of injury or harm.  Sometimes the risk lies in the results possibly not turning out as the child had intended, sometimes, while there may be minor risk, it is outweighed by the opportunity for learning and discovery. Taking a balanced approach to risk allows us to weigh up the risks but also the benefits, and introduce challenge that we are comfortable with but that also provide children with rich learning experiences.

If you have any questions about Risky Play or, would like to talk more about Outdoor Play Provision, please feel free to contact us 045-861307. Keep an eye out in your emails for upcoming events on Outdoor Play.


  1. Play Scotland have some excellent resources on loose parts play:


  1. If you are exploring Risky Play for the first time, this is an excellent webinar from Early Childhood Investigations, with Rusty Keeler. In this Webinar, Rusty asks – “What is your Yes?” in relation to Risky Play Provision. https://www.earlychildhoodwebinars.com/webinars/adventures-in-risky-play-what-is-your-yes-by-rusty-keeler/
  1. If you are looking for inspiration for your outdoor play space, check out The Curiosity Approach https://www.thecuriosityapproach.com/ - they have some fantastic resources and lots of ideas on their social media pages.
  1. Here is a great mud play workshop from the recent Mayo Outdoor Play Conference – Alchemical Art with Davy Walsh. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zHEd8AIjYmY&t=577s

5. If you need reminding of why children need this type of play, here is a great Aistear Information Booklet, on fundamental movement skills for 3-6 year olds: http://www.aistearsiolta.ie/en/play/resources-for-sharing/fundamental-movement-skills-3-6-years-.pdf