April 20, 2023

Strategies to Foster Risk Taking During Outdoor Play

Outdoor play is part of developmentally appropriate practice, and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends children spend 60 minutes daily working their large muscles.

To support children in their outdoor play, early childhood educators can reframe their views of risk taking by acknowledging the developmental benefits of taking risks and working to remove barriers and boundaries that limit open, free play.

The National Association for the Education of Young Child (NAEYC) has provided the following five strategies to help early childhood educators foster risk taking in play:

Examine Existing Beliefs

Educators’ personal experiences and perceptions inform their actions and reactions to a child engaged in risky play. Educators can reflect on their own beliefs by asking certain questions to gauge how they champion or avoid risking taking. Taking time to self reflect in this way can help educators to determine how to foster risk and gauge the limitations they may place on risk taking and play.

Those introspective questions can include:

  • Am I a risk taker?
  • What worries me about taking risks?
  • What excites me about taking risks?
  • What childhood memories do I have of taking a risk?

Get to Know the Child and Environment

Teachers and children are familiar with their programs’ outdoor play spaces. Thanks to this familiarity, educators can evaluate the terrain and the safety of each structure and piece of equipment, including asking essential questions like:

  • How might each child navigate the space?
  • What hurdles may they face?
  • What kind of support may I need to offer?
  • When should I offer it?

Become an Observer

Outdoor spaces are designed to foster running, jumping, swinging, climbing, and moving over uneven terrain. As children move, early childhood educators should pay attention to their fine and large motor abilities, taking note when a child hesitates or pauses while engaged in a task or with others. Through observation, teachers will develop an understanding of a child’s ability to appraise and respond to risk.

Model and Encourage

Children grow in their ability to appraise risk by observing others’ play and movement. Educators can support risk taking by engaging in it themselves and expressing their thoughts verbally. This models the internal dialogue that occurs when assessing risks and challenges.

Such modeling can help children learn self-regulation as they examine their thoughts and feelings and determine their next steps.

When to Intervene

While acknowledging that risk taking is developmentally appropriate and a healthy part of early childhood, educators often find themselves in a paradox: they want to foster risky play and urge children to step out of their comfort zones, but they also must ensure safety.

Educators should insert themselves in a risky play scenario if:

  • the level of risk could lead to serious injury;
  • a child demonstrates emotional distress or fear; or
  • the structure or environment is hazardous (ice on play surfaces, broken glass, construction).

Learn More

To learn more about developmentally appropriate practices for early childhood development and education, be sure to visit the Trying Together Developmentally Appropriate Parenting Series.