Balancing Safe Play with Adventurism in Natural Playgrounds

The most engaging play spaces are those that afford kids the freedom of ‘free play’ while balancing safety and risk-taking for positive development.

Parents have an innate sense that they must keep their children as safe as possible at all times. While this protective instinct is entirely natural and understandable, in reality kids need to take risks in order to learn and grow.

Research into risky play and children’s safety has found that “imposing too many restrictions on children’s outdoor risky play hinders their development”. Whether it’s due to landscape architects’ fear of injury, or school or councils’ fear of litigation should a serious accident occur, many playgrounds are created in such a way that they don’t allow children to experience the benefits of risky play.

The key for landscape designers is to foster opportunities for kids to explore and test their own capacities. Natural playgrounds provide the ideal space to do exactly this – whether it’s climbing on trees, navigating a series of log steppers or enjoying a variety of challenges on timber play equipment.


Adventurism Doesn’t Mean Dangerous

Recent estimates show that a child would need to spend three full hours playing every single day for 10 years before they were likely to incur an injury requiring treatment. But no matter how much the statistics paint the real picture, private businesses and fast-food restaurants with on-site play centres will understandably avoid risky play at all costs for fear of being sued.

Thankfully, many schools and councils are more pragmatic about balancing the benefits of risky play with safety. The key is delineating what is a risk and what is a hazard. Here’s how the Australian Children’s Education & Care Quality Authority defines both:

  • Risk: Something that is possible to negotiate and may be appropriate for particular situations and children.
  • Hazard: Something that is inherently dangerous and needs to be remedied, such as a climbing structure with sharp edges or loose boards that could seriously injure children if they play on it.

‘Risk’ and ‘danger’ aren’t just about the obvious things like objects that are several metres off the ground and therefore a falling risk for young children. They are also about giving kids the freedom to play freely and unencumbered by external restrictions.

Nature discovery trails, for example, are risky (albeit low risk) because they may include rocks that are unsteady or streams that have the potential for kids to slip in. Yet these are vital components of natural playgrounds because they allow children to play independently and at a safe distance from supervisors.

The bottom line is that no play area can be entirely free of risk. But the greater danger is in designing a playground that has no risk at all – because that means children can’t develop their skills and abilities, and won’t have opportunities to identify and avoid risk in their own ways.


Enabling Risk in a Positive Natural Playground Setting

So, the most important question for landscape architects and playground designers is: how can we enable children to experience risky and adventurous play? In a well designed play space such as a natural playground, children are able to immerse themselves in risky play without even realising they are taking risks.

This could mean navigating a log balance trail or developing their physical and spatial awareness on a balance see saw, or creatively engaging with the natural elements of their surrounding environment – with sticks, mud, sand, water, plants and dirt.

Risk doesn’t have to be taken to extremes – although dedicated risky playgrounds like a recent project in Melbourne’s Southbank are helping parents, councils and landscape architects have long overdue conversations about the importance of balancing safe play with adventurism.

Ultimately, children need to face risks in order to identify them, overcome them and learn from them.

Natura’s play consultants are here to help you select the right mix of products (and risk!) for your next landscape design. To speak to us about products, or get a full nature play design, give us a call on 1800 655 041.

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Natura acknowledges all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people — the traditional Custodians of the land on which we work. We respect their continuing connection to land, waters, and culture and recognise that sovereignty has never been ceded. We pay our respects to Elders past and present.