One of SOuL’s recent designs

Let’s talk about risky play and opportunities for pupils to test limits at school. Many schools are turning their backs on conventional timber trail type designs as they lack challenge, tend to be quite uniform and conform to standardised designs and elements.


Our ‘all natural’ approach generates more challenge and creativity through asymmetric and irregular shapes and elements, whilst also ensuring that there is a natural aesthetic with materials left in a more raw form with bark left on natural hardwood wood chip surfaces where possible. 


This matters because children need space to test their physical abilities, spark creativity and practice risk taking in a relatively safe environment. 


We asked Andy, the Director of School Outdoor Learning for his take on risky play at school. Read on to see why natural play spaces at school are the way forward. 


In your opinion, what does risky play look like in schools?

For me, it’s about giving children more challenge while giving them opportunities to make choices around the degree of risk they are comfortable with. This can vary from one child to the next. It means children having opportunities to climb high, swing, spin, jump, roll and move at speed. It enables them to assess risks and decide whether or not to take them for themselves. 

There are a lot of key things that we have stripped out of play over the years, such as rough and tumble, climbing, spinning and swinging. It has left play activities and apparatus sanitised and devoid of real risk and challenge. This also means that many of the social, collaborative and imaginative aspects of play have also been removed. A lack of risky play stilts the development of key proprioception and vestibular senses resulting in children with poor movement and spatial skills.


How do you incorporate risk into natural playscapes? 

Our ‘all natural’ designs tend to have rough sides and edges with bark left on. They have irregular and asymmetric design built in so that children need to think and plan (even if only for a split second) before they move and engage with the apparatus. Research shows that these types of designs actually generate fewer accidents. This is because children are forced to pause, consciously consider their moves and act more deliberately around the playscape. So there is often a beneficial, perceived risk whilst resulting in fewer accidents and less harm!

Risky play at school in action


What do you consider too risky for play at school? How do you balance risky play opportunities with risk management?

Of course, there are always limits but we rarely, if ever, see safety aspects breached. If anything we tend to see a zealous enforcement of safety guidelines and dumbed down/overly sanitised play activities. Typically this is due to rigid enforcement of RoSPA guidelines and EN standards. The standards are purely to be used as a guide, they are not rigidly set in law and schools can operate ‘out of scope’ if they so wish. What is needed is a conversation within schools particularly amongst play supervisors with SLT to identify risks and hazards. Then these stakeholders can work on how to mitigate the effects carefully but intelligently. We always advocate a risk/benefit analysis rather than a rigorous risk assessment and slavish adherence to the guidelines.   


How should a school start to implement risky play? What are the first steps?

First and foremost, start a conversation amongst your staff team, and particularly with those who supervise outdoor play, about what constitutes risky play in your setting. Then (if it is not deemed risky enough) push the limits beyond what you currently do and consider the benefits that this might create. For example, can you extend the boundaries and space in which children can operate (do they have to always be visible all the time in a fenced environment)? Can they climb higher, roll more, swing from trees, spin until they feel dizzy, engage with loose parts in their settings to build/balance/break things? Implementing a risk/benefit analysis of your play activities and school site is a really effective way to balance hazards with mitigating risks. 

Adults should intervene and stop things from happening far less than they do. They can also model and direct healthy risky play by getting involved and engaging with the children in their worlds (not the adult world!). Where there are genuine risks then talk to the children and ask them to consider the implications of their actions and what might go wrong, instead of shouting and blowing whistles!

Consider engaging your parents in this dialogue to seek their views. Obviously there will always be a mixture in response but, in our experience, parents want their children to experience ‘childhood’ and to enjoy what they did growing up.  

Are you interested in bringing more risky play into your playground. Get in touch and share your ideas. We would love to talk through your ideas.