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EYFS Outdoor Play: Balancing Safety with Risk and Challenge

Introduction

Children are naturally curious. The urge to explore, understand and get into everything is how they learn how they fit into their environment, and build an understanding of the way the world works. Of course, this comes with a degree of risk; child-proofing is a thing for a reason!


Outdoor play on a high wire


However, as children get older, learning how to manage risk is an essential life skill, and all part of growing up. Sometimes they succeed, and sometimes they fail, and both serve to teach vital life lessons, build confidence, overcome or accept limitations and explore who they are and what their potential is.


The Importance of Outdoor Play in EYFS

Outdoor play is not just a means for children to let off steam. It is a key contributor to their physical, emotional, and social development. In the fresh air, with the room to run, jump, and explore, children develop essential motor skills, and the natural setting also offers a unique space for social interaction, allowing children to learn cooperation, negotiation, and conflict resolution. Moreover, a connection with nature from an early age cultivates a sense of wonder and respect for the environment.


Understanding Risk in Outdoor Play

Risk in outdoor play is often misunderstood. Nobody wants to see a child getting hurt, and safety in the playground should always be a priority, but removing risk completely is not only impossible, but counterintuitive. Children wouldn't learn how to adapt to the situations they face and, as a result, would lack the confidence to try new things or new experiences. On the other hand, they also might fail to recognise when they're faced with a true risk, and find themselves in danger.


It is not about placing children in harm's way but about providing opportunities for them to encounter challenges and learn how to navigate them. A controlled level of risk is essential for child development. It helps children understand their own limits, develop problem-solving skills, and build courage and resilience. Learning to assess and manage risk is a crucial life skill, and outdoor play is an excellent context for developing this skill.


Safety Measures in Outdoor Play Environments

While encouraging risk and challenge, the safety of the outdoor play environment should not be understated, nor compromised. Regular safety checks of play equipment, ensuring safe surfacing materials, and designing spaces that are age-appropriate are paramount. This involves not only physical safety measures but also creating an environment that is emotionally and socially secure for the children.


Balancing Safety with Encouraging Risk and Challenge

The crux of effective outdoor play lies in finding the right balance between safety and encouraging risk and challenge. This can be achieved by supervised risk-taking, where educators closely monitor play but allow children to explore and push their boundaries. Introducing children to new, more challenging activities progressively is also key, as it helps build their confidence and skills gradually. Not every child is an adrenaline junkie, and although some may need a little more encouragement than others, it's important not to force them to tackle something that they're just not ready for.


Involving Children in Risk Assessment


Child risk assessment for outdoor play

An often-overlooked aspect of outdoor play is involving children in the process of risk assessment. This empowers them to understand the potential consequences of their actions and to make informed decisions. It is a formative step in developing their judgment and critical thinking skills. Children who are part of this process tend to be more cautious and aware of their environment and their peers.


The Role of Educators and Caregivers

Educators and caregivers play a pivotal role in facilitating outdoor play. They need to strike a balance between being vigilant for safety and allowing children enough freedom to explore. This involves knowing when to step in to prevent harm and when to step back to let learning happen. It's also about providing the right kind of encouragement and guidance to children as they navigate through different play scenarios.


Conclusion

In conclusion, balancing safety with risk and challenge in EYFS outdoor play is essential for holistic child development. It is about creating environments where children can explore and learn, take risks within a framework of safety, and develop essential life skills. As educators and caregivers, understanding and implementing this balance is our responsibility, ensuring that our youngest learners grow up to be confident, competent, and resilient individuals.




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