Friday, 10 October 2014

The Risk of No Risk

We all remember the thrill of successfully performing an ‘apple turnover’ on the monkey bars, balancing on a slippery log across a creek, or negotiating a huge jump out of a tree. This was a normal part of childhood for many of us.
Something changed dramatically between the childhoods of just forty years ago and those of today. Perhaps it was the increased awareness of injury prevention in workplaces, the rise of litigation as a result of injuries, or the change in the notion of duty of care – or all of these factors and more. Whatever the cause, the outcome appears to have been the proliferation of risk-averse playspaces in the Western world.

In more recent times however, we’ve seen the emergence of a more balanced approach – playspaces that strive to find a balance between managing the risk to prevent serious injury, and promoting important risk-taking and free play. In this blogpost we look at why risk is important, how adults and children manage risk, and how we can give our children the opportunity to benefit from risk.

Risk in play

When researchers observe preschool children playing outdoors, they see children deliberately exposing themselves to risk (for example, playing at heights and high speeds). Most play does not involve risk, but it is important to remember that risky play is a normal, and even an important part of play, for all ages of children. 

Why risk is important

There is a wealth of research indicating that risk plays a necessary role in children’s development. Basically, children gain social, emotional and physical benefits from engaging in experiences that involve uncertainty and challenge. When children feel secure in themselves to act on their curiosity and try to meet challenges they’ve chosen, they gain confidence. This is known as the ‘risk-taker’s advantage.’

The process of encountering, and responding to challenge is vital for child development. What risk-taking does for children is give them the opportunity to test themselves against their environment and experience feelings of autonomy, competence and relatedness (to each other and the world around them). These outcomes are vital to children’s health and wellbeing. The nature of play can be compared to an artist’s creativity, play is a creative process and so cannot have success or failure, it either has opportunity to exist or does not. Through play, especially when it involves some level of challenge, children are learning to deal with uncertainty and build the emotional and mental resources to become resilient and happy adults. Isn’t that what all parents want for their children?

One critical question the theorists ask is: How can children learn the limits of their abilities if they’re only offered activities with no risk of failure? A related question is: If children are never allowed to feel discomfort, how will they develop physical skills, learn to regulate their emotions, be vulnerable and connected in relationships, or keep trying when something is difficult?

With physical harm (e.g a grazed knee) there is instantaneous, visible feedback for the child. They can use this valuable information to learn from. This can be a fast learning opportunity, though it may take a few slips and grazes to realise that running on wet bitumen is possibly not the best idea! What happens for the skills and attributes that require opportunities over much longer periods of time in order to develop? 

Consider one such attribute: self-efficacy. People with well developed self-efficacy ‘foster intrinsic interest and deep engrossment in activities. They set themselves challenging goals and maintain strong commitment to them. They heighten and sustain their efforts in the face of failure. They quickly recover their sense of efficacy after failures or setbacks. They attribute failure to insufficient effort or deficient knowledge and skills which are acquirable. They approach threatening situations with assurance that they can exercise control over them. Such an efficacious outlook produces personal accomplishments, reduces stress and lowers vulnerability to depression.’ (Bandura) This is surely what we would like to support in our children. Bandura goes on to state that the most effective way of helping develop self-efficacy is via mastery experiences. He warns that only experiencing easy success is detrimental – and that it is critical for people to have to persevere when overcoming challenges. This is exactly what great play provides – a wonderful balance with a variety of challenges!

We are concerned that the detrimental effects of unchallenging play environments, and overly-cautious adult supervision could be contributing to the lack of resilience and mental health issues that research indicates are on the increase. Problems associated with not being able to develop attributes that are developed over a long time period, such as self-efficacy, may not be immediately visible. There is an argument that they are possibly more debilitating than difficulty with skills which are more visible and easier to see develop, such as fine motor skills. This would logically mean that we are required to have careful thought and consideration about the opportunities we provide for challenge for our children. We need to think more long term than politicians tend to – not just while the child is in our immediate care (our ‘term of office’), but how the decisions we make while they’re in our care will impact them as they grow and develop into teens and beyond.

How adults tend to manage risk

Of course, injury prevention underpins our efforts to keep children safe. The problem is achieving the right balance. Emerging research says over-restricting children’s outdoor risky play actually hinders their development, and that adult concerns about children’s safety are the most significant influence on children’s access to free play.

Interestingly, in one US study the educators expressed that outdoor play areas had become unchallenging and uninteresting to children – and some children had started using equipment in unsafe ways in order to maintain challenge! Children have a biological need for challenge, and it is important that we provide appropriate challenge.

As much as we’d love to blame technology for children spending less time playing outdoors, and there is definitely an impact seen due to the increased use of technology, the generational trends actually suggest that children’s dwindling interest in outdoor play is influenced largely by parental and societal concerns. The truth is, some parents’ and educators’ perceptions of risk and uncertainty, combined with the ways they model risk management, probably have considerable impact on the ways their children take and understand risks for themselves.

Backing up that theory, one research study looked at two types of parents. There was one group of people who had experienced significant risk in their lives and another group that had led relatively risk-free lives. The researchers asked questions to find out how each of these parents approached risk with their children, aged between five and 17 years.

The pattern that emerged was that parents who had experienced risks themselves found it easier to balance safety and adventure. They could give their children the chance to manage uncertainty and risks in everyday life, focusing on the benefits of risk taking to develop life skills. The other group of parents focused more on protecting their children from harm and preventing them from making mistakes. The problem with this approach, of overly focusing on ‘protection from harm’ is that, as Michael Follett has recently been talking about with many WA educators - if we are not allowing challenge, we are not building competence, and if we are not building competence, what are we building? The uncomfortable answer to this, is incompetence. This is not what we want for our children.

How children manage risk

The research suggests that children understand and regulate risk when they have opportunities to participate in challenging play.

During an observational study, one researcher noted that children appear to understand their own competency and the level of risk they are comfortable with. They modulate their risky play to these internal boundaries. They also understand and accept that their peers have different levels of comfort and ability.

When they talked about injuries, children viewed minor injuries as a way to show that they had taken risks (a positive), but there was also an understanding that too many injuries indicated incompetence, carelessness or clumsiness (a negative). The upshot is, most children seem to have their own regulatory system for maintaining risks and injuries at manageable levels. Opportunities to continually develop this skill is vital – especially for when they reach adolescence and adulthood.

Children in general understand their personal safety and see themselves as competent at managing their own safety. Research has also shown that children feel that they, and not their parents, are primarily responsible for their own safety; although this is a big variation on how the parents see it!

Children at play can expose themselves to a level of challenge that they think is just beyond their capability. If, over time, they have been allowed to build a good understanding of the nature of their current capabilities and understand the nature of the risk they are exposing themselves to, they show competent strategies for mitigating harm. Experience provides this understanding. They show awareness of potential dangers and adjust their activities accordingly. Importantly, they can understand their own, and their playmates’, capabilities and skills, which allows them to support each other’s risk engagement and safety.

Without this opportunity as a child, the impact is seen when they are older. Judith Hackett, chair of the UK Health and Safety Executive has stated that employers are concerned that young people entering the workspace increasingly do not know how to identify risk, manage it or have the confidence to deal with anything that involves uncertainty. Anecdotal evidence suggests that there are similar trends here in Australia. There is an opportunity (or should we say ‘responsibility’?) to reverse this trend.

How to go forward

How do we strike that magical balance between risk management and facilitating healthy risk?

At Nature Play Solutions, we have always used a risk-benefit approach, as we believe that it is important to eliminate hazards (i.e. a source of harm that is not obvious to the child, such as a broken railing, and where any risk does not outweigh the potential benefits); but not to eliminate all risks. The benefits that come from appropriate risk and challenge must be considered alongside the dangers of risk. The (often long-term) risk of not having the ‘risky opportunity’ or challenge must be considered. A good play experience is one in which children are allowed to recognise and evaluate challenges, and act in a way that is not necessarily dangerous, but may still involve an element of risk. Again, to quote Michael Follett, we need to allow children to play in a way that they can ‘move beyond what is already known and easily accomplished’ to ensure that they continue to grow and develop; socially, emotionally and physically.

Our experience with the OPAL program, as well as results from research, suggests that one of the best ways to address this, and to provide a balance for children, is to give educators and parents the opportunity to explore and share their understandings of risk, and decide what they want for the children in their care. Educators and parents usually have common goals for children: health, happiness and resilience. The pathways there are what’s up for negotiation. Let’s give it some thought and all try and take the path that provides long term benefits for our children.

Visit our website to see our portfolio of playspaces.


  1. Mariana Brussoni, Lise L. Olsen, Ian Pike and David A. Sleet. Optimal Child Development (2012) Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health, 9, 3135-3148.
  2. Anita Nelson Niehues, Anita Bundy, Alexander Broom, Paul Tranter (2013) Parents’ Perceptions of Risk and the Influence on Children’s Everyday Activities, J Child Fam Stud.
  3. Anita Nelson Niehues, Anita Bundy, Alex Broom, Paul Tranter, Jo Ragen & Lina Engelen (2013) Everyday uncertainties: reframing perceptions of risk in outdoor free play, Journal of Adventure Education & Outdoor Learning, 13:3, 223-237.
  4. Bandura, A. (1994). Self-efficacy. In V. S. Ramachaudran (Ed.), Encyclopedia of human behavior (Vol. 4, pp. 71-81). New York: Academic Press. (Reprinted in H. Friedman [Ed.], Encyclopedia of mental health. San Diego: Academic Press, 1998). 

You may also like to look at the Kidsafe WA and Kidsafe NSW websites regarding risk in play:

Friday, 3 October 2014

A new natural playspace in Subiaco

Subiaco Theatre Gardens Natural Playspace

The Nature Play Solutions team was pleased to see our most recent public open space project launched in early October.

The Theatre Gardens is a district park in Subiaco, bounded by Bagot, Hensman and Hamersley roads. As a district level park, it is larger in size, provides a range of amenities and attracts local residents as well as visitors from outside Subiaco. The old playground was a simple, traditional style plastic playground. The new playspace is located on the northern side of the park, closest to Bagot Road.

The Old Playground

Throughout December 2013 and January 2014, the City of Subiaco invited the community to provide feedback to determine the key elements to be included in the new playspace and inform the development of the concept design. The City’s Playspace Strategy provided the framework for the basis of community engagement in playspace planning and design in parks and public green spaces within the City. You can read about the Strategy here.

The project was tendered on a design and construct basis with the key points of the project brief calling for:

  • an environment which supports inclusion and participation;
  • choices in the types of activities that interest children of a range of ages and development stages;
  • cognitive and imaginative play opportunities as well as physical active play;
  • opportunities for people to meet and play together;
  • sensory qualities which provide interest to children, e.g. sensory trails and activities;
  • a comfortable physical environment, e.g. shade, shelter, winter, sun;
  • appropriate risks and challenges, as well a reasonable degree of safety;
  • a combination of built and natural elements, e.g. cubbies amongst vegetation, sand, logs and spatial qualities which enhance activities, e.g. partial enclosures, or a sense of elevation;
  • a balance between fast and slow; light and shade, loose materials and fixed equipment, noisy and quiet spaces, smoothness and texture, enclosed and open spaces, opportunities to move up and down;
  • cater for the parents and carers as well as children;
  • linked to a theme to provide increased opportunity for play, and to act as a link between elements of the existing creek system play area; and
  • amenities which are easy and comfortable to use.
The playspace design also needed to consider the preservation and improvement of the existing adjacent vegetation.

Design and Construction

The Nature Play Solutions design team, led by Senior Landscape Architect, Wendy Seymour collaborated with the City to develop a concept design and the City then provided the community with a number of opportunities for feedback and comment on the proposed design to ensure it met the community's needs.

Construction commenced in June 2014 and was undertaken by our in-house construction team, in collaboration with our design team. The City of Subiaco’s Parks Development team was the client representative overseeing the works. Materials from the previous play equipment were recycled where possible, such as moving and/or upgrading existing park benches and scrap metal was diverted for recycling.

Materials in either raw form or with a minimal amount of processing were used extensively throughout the playspace, including natural jarrah bush poles, rough sawn jarrah timber, granite boulders, gravel surfacing and pinebark mulch.

The Result

Important considerations within the design process were; ensuring that the playspace sits gently in the surrounding landscape, that adequate and appropriate challenge was provided for children, and that children of varying ability were provided for. Inclusivity was important and was given particular thought and attention, while ensuring as natural a space as possible. The combination of these considerations has produced a result whereby children with differing abilities can have fun and play together.

The result of this process is a playspace that incorporates natural elements and allows for imaginative and creative, reflective and challenging play opportunities. The playspace includes a tight rope walk, water and sand play trays, boulder climb, stilts, balancing beams, basket swing, cubbies and even a puppet theatre with wooden 'curtains.'

The community is showing a lot of interest in visiting the natural playspace, which was officially launched by the City of Subiaco Mayor on Wednesday October 1.

Mayor Heather Henderson said: "The new play facility is spectacular. Children are encouraged to embrace natural play, with organic elements such as water, sand and trees used in the design."

"Theatre Gardens is already a popular spot for the community and visitors to Subiaco, and with the addition of this fantastic new play area for the kids, I imagine we'll see lots of families enjoying the facilities as we head into warmer weather."

The new playspace is suitable for children to enjoy playing in a creative, challenging and stimulating natural environment.

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Outdoor Play and Learning (OPAL) comes to Perth

How better play improves school performance: TALK

Michael Follett, director of the award-winning Outdoor Play and Learning (OPAL) program in the UK, is coming to Perth for a series of talks and to conduct training for OPAL mentors.
Michael with our own Emma in the UK recently

Michael works with schools to develop a strategic and policy based approach to improving play. The focus is on creating lasting and significant change in play provision, due to the multitude of benefits that result from excellent play experiences. These benefits extend to all areas of children’s wellbeing and learning; physical, cognitive, social and emotional and general wellbeing.

Nature Play Solutions is hosting Michael in Perth for a 2 week visit. Michael has worked in an advisory capacity for The National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE), The National Trust, The National Lottery, The Ministry of Justice, Play England (National Children's Bureau) and the Football Association (FA). He is also a Qualified Teacher, Playworker, has been a School Play Advisor, a Play Strategy Officer, and for twelve years has been speaking, writing and training others about Play.

Your invitation

We invite Principals, Teachers, Educators and Parents to come along to one of a series of Free Talks to learn more about PLAY and the OPAL Program.

Despite the pressures of curriculum and assessment, schools acknowledge that they are more than a data transfer system. They are there to equip, prepare and develop each child's potential. Time spent dealing with the negative outcomes from poor quality playtimes is wasting money, if that time could be spent in greater achievement of the school’s purpose. In our busy, structured, digital world, opportunities for excellent play experiences at school are more important than ever.

Michael’s talks aim to raise the profile and understanding of PLAY. He will also talk about the OPAL program and how it has changed play in UK schools.

Details - 2 talks available


  • Topic: How better play improves school performance
  • @ Lake Joondalup Baptist College
  • 8 Kennedya Drive, Joondalup
  • 4.00-5.30pm
  • Light refreshments will be available.


  • Topic: How better play improves school performance
  • @Forest crescent Primary School
  • Forest Crescent, Thornlie
  • 4.15-5.45pm
  • Light refreshments will be available.
For catering purposes, please rsvp to

If you would like to host a play talk at your school while Michael is here in Perth, or find out more about the OPAL program, please contact Emma at

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

What is play?

Play is a concept that’s difficult to define, because it will look a little different each time a child engages in it. A useful way to understand play is as ‘child-led’ behaviour. The key elements commonly used to
describe play are that it must be:
  • freely chosen,
  • personally directed, and
  • intrinsically motivated. 

Freely chosen

Freely chosen play refers to the time, place, and level of participation in play, more than the content of the play. In schools, there are limitations to freely chosen play as the time to play is set by the school. However, within the play time provided it’s up to the child whether they choose to engage in something we would call play or not. Once we compel a child to take part in an activity, game etc. it ceases to be play and becomes something else. As play specialists, we don’t attach any value judgements to this shift. However, if our goal is to enable play, we try to be aware that the more we stray from allowing the freedom to choose, the less likely it is that the activity we have provided is play.

Personally directed

Personally directed play refers more to the content than the opportunity for play. Play is not an activity; it is a process by which the child discovers the complexity of their relationship with the material, internal, social and cultural spheres of their lives. This process of discovery – reaction and adjustment – is completely personal and therefore must be directed by the person for whom it is relevant. This is where the idea of agency is important. 

The value of play is not ‘what is achieved’, created, or accomplished, but the relationship between what happened and the child's part in it. How did the world react to the child being an agent of their own experience? How did the child react to the world’s reaction to their agency? What adjustment took place in the child's body, mind, cognitive development as a result of their self-created experience? How does the child develop their next move as a result of what they experienced?

Play is the creation of personal primary experience and as play unfolds it can only be play if it unfolds in a totally unique way for each child, and responds to the totally unique directions in which the child wishes to explore.

The role of the adult in play is not to direct play but enrich, prepare, resource, facilitate, sometimes guide, illustrate, sometimes negotiate and above all observe and intervene when most appropriate, especially when keeping play within socially acceptable norms and 'safe enough' boundaries.

Intrinsically motivated

If the first aspect of play is about opportunity and the second about content, this third aspect of play is about reason. What is the reason for play?

The answer is: play itself! Children have an immense innate biological drive and capacity for play. Evolution does not waste time or energy, and our progress as a species has been down to our ability to imagine the impossible, explore every avenue, questions every possibility and create the uncreated. Children are intrinsically motivated to do this. If we as adults try to introduce other motivations, winning, making 'the best thing,' making children thinner, healthier or better behaved, we misunderstand the core nature of play as something that comes at its heart from the child. We do not need to know what they are doing, why they are doing it or what they are gaining from it. It is really none of our business and far too complex for us to understand.

That’s the goal to aim for: Excellent opportunities for children to engage in play. Fortunately, all the other benefits do come: health and physical development, social and emotional development, among a plethora of others; however, we let these benefits just occur, rather than pushing for them as the focus, and the focus of my work as a play advocate is to ensure the best play possible is provided for, because this is what children NEED.

Our guest blogger is Michael Follett, Director of the Outdoor Play and Learning (OPAL) program. Michael is coming to Perth in September to complete our training in the OPAL program, so we can comprehensively support schools in their play provision. You can find out more about OPAL at

We will be hosting a free talk by Michael for all interested principals, teachers and parents who may like to learn more about the OPAL program. This free talk will be held on Wednesday 10th September, from 4.30-6pm at a venue to be announced  Refreshments will be provided. Please register your interest for catering purposes at

Sunday, 3 August 2014

A better place for kids to play

An OT Perspective on the Play Environment

Why play is important

For an occupational therapist, the two main occupations of children are play and learning (these aren’t mutually exclusive). Play is important for children to develop their physical, intellectual, emotional, social and moral capacities. 

Play is how children create and preserve friendships. It helps foster important life skills and a state of mind that is ready for learning, high-level reasoning, insightful problem solving, and all kinds of creative endeavours.

There are three key areas that occupational therapists look at when working with people: occupation, person, and environment. In this case, the occupation is play. The person is the individual child. And the environment? Well it’s a little more involved than you may think…

The play environment

There are no less than four components of any given play environment. Let’s take as an example an early childhood setting, such as a childcare centre.

1. The physical environment

The physical environment includes the playspace, the climate, any shade or shelter, the equipment supplied, and the buildings, structures (e.g. slides, flat or undulating surfaces) or boundaries around the play area.

2. The institutional environment

There are non-physical factors associated with the childcare centre, including the policies of the centre, times allocated to playing outside and/or inside, and rules about where to play (or not play). It also includes factors such as how groups of children may be divided (e.g. by age).

3. The social environment

This includes the staff’s attitude to play (e.g. whether they value play or not). These attitudes are reflected in choices made by staff, such as when and where to play (when these choices are not directed by policy) – for example, are playtime choices governed by what is ‘easiest’ for the staff to supervise, or what is ‘best’ for the children? Another aspect of the social environment includes the way staff speak to the children and one another, and the way the children have learned to speak to each other.

4. The cultural environment

The cultural environment includes attitudes and habits displayed by staff, which are often due in part to wider cultural values or to experiences from our own childhoods. For example, the types of play considered acceptable: is rough and tumble play okay or not? What play is appropriate for girls vs boys – should there be a difference? What does ‘keeping children safe’ mean – what is the attitude to risk?

Obviously there are both interplay and crossover between these four elements of the play environment.

How to create an effective play environment

The physical environment combines with these other aspects of the environment and throws open questions like:
  • Does the playspace encourage exploration of space and materials?
  • Are the challenges presented in the playspace appropriate for the children using it?
  • Does the playspace facilitate enjoyable and meaningful play for children?
  • Does the playspace allow the staff to easily supervise and support play?
The key to a genuinely effective play environment is to take all the environmental factors into consideration when designing the space. It is also important to bring all the stakeholders on board for the journey (staff, parents and the children themselves).

We therefore use our knowledge of the non-physical environmental factors to inform our design. So, we design for the specific user group in order to ensure a playspace responds to the nuanced needs of all potential players and other users. For example, in considering adult users of the playspace, we ensure that appropriate seating is part of the design, and that there is consideration of their line of sight for supervision of children. These design considerations will support increased outdoor play opportunities being made possible. 

It is also important to start conversations with adults in these settings about related concepts such as the value of play and the important role that appropriate risk plays in development. This is so that, over time, the non-physical environment can fully support and reflect the play-enhanced physical environment, with the result being children who can experience better outcomes in their physical and emotional wellbeing.

Sounds simple? It is both a simple and a highly complex process to create a playspace where children have opportunities to develop, extend their skills and play experiences, and most importantly, to have fun!

Nature Play Solutions consists of a multi-disciplinary team working together to create wonderful playspaces for children. Our occupational therapist is Emma Lawrence, B.Sc. (Occupational Therapy).

When discussing these environmental domains, Emma has been referring to a framework known as the Canadian Model for Occupational Performance and Engagement. You can find more about this framework in the book ‘Enabling Occupation II’, edited by Townsend & Polatajko (2007).