Topography and other physical features of outdoor play spaces encourage children’s engagement in risky play

Loebach, J. ., Ramsden, R. ., Cox, A. ., Joyce, K. ., & Brussoni, M. . (2023). Running the risk: The social, behavioral and environmental associations with positive risk in children’s play activities in outdoor playspaces. Journal of Outdoor and Environmental Education.

The benefits of outdoor risky play have received much attention; however, little is understood about how physical and social environmental factors impact children’s risky play experiences. Improved understanding of such factors is important in supporting children’s engagement with positive risk through the creation of spaces and programs that facilitate these types of play experiences. This research utilized data from two North American studies to identify the physical and social environmental associations with children’s risk-taking behavior during play.

Observations of risky play were conducted in two different environmental contexts. The first study was situated at a naturalized playspace, “The Backyard,” at the Museum of Natural History in Santa Barbara, California (USA). Children aged 3 to 8 years were observed playing freely in a range of natural settings. The second study collected data at eight childcare centers in Vancouver (Canada) as part of the PROmoting Early Childhood Outside (PRO-ECO) Study. Observations of 135 children aged 2 to 6 years were conducted during play on outdoor areas. Additionally, two of the childcare centers with higher rates of risk-taking play were selected as case studies. Researchers employed place-based observational behavior mapping to capture children’s play behaviors across the space which incorporated short video recordings of play that were geo-located using ArcGIS’ Field Maps. Observed behaviors were categorized as either ‘positive risk’ or ‘no/negative risk.’ Statistical analysis determined associations between risk-taking behavior and predictor variables (gender, group size, play behavior type, play communication, adult interaction, activity intensity, peer interaction, environmental interaction, and topography). The researchers also created descriptive data maps to illustrate patterns of risky-play in relation to topography and ground surface.

Positive risk-taking activities, which constituted more than half of all observed play behaviors at the Backyard play space (52%), were much less prevalent at the childcare centers (17%). Across both research sites, no associations were detected between risk-taking behavior and child gender. Both studies also revealed little association between positive risk-taking behaviors and interaction with either peers or adults. Very strong positive associations were found between children’s participation in risky play and physically intense activities, such as climbing and jumping, as well as physical play (play that involves bodily movement). Other key findings focused on the physical environment. The play opportunities offered by physical features were instrumental to risk-taking behaviors, although they differed between sites. Positive risk play at the Backyard was strongly associated with interaction with natural elements and included both fixed natural features (trees, boulders) and loose natural parts (mulch, water, small stumps) and was more likely to occur in areas with challenging topography. At the childcare sites, which lacked challenging topographies, children were more likely to participate in risk-taking behavior when interacting with fixed environmental features (playhouse, boulder, slide) that afforded opportunities to climb and jump.

Overall, the research provides insight into the factors that support positive risk-taking behaviors for young children during outdoor play. The research suggests that engagement in risky play results from a combination of personal, social and environmental factors. Both studies highlighted the importance of the physical environment, including natural and fixed features, as well as topography, in risky play. Although childcare sites presented fewer natural elements, the strong associations with physical play across studies calls for designing outdoor playspaces which support these behaviors. The researchers conclude that the physical aspects of play environments are vital to opportunities for positive risk. Natural and fixed features, as well as diverse and challenging topographies, are especially important in regard to active, risky play behaviors.

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