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Why we need to bring back ‘risky play’ for children

Outdoor preschools offer a wealth of multi-sensory learning

The outdoors preschool in Co Roscommon sprawls across one acre of land, but the number of children it is allowed to take in is determined by the size of its indoor classroom, which is practically never used, but obligatory to have under regulations drawn up for conventional creches.

It’s a pity, says Katie Glynn of the restricted capacity at Willow Outdoor Preschool, which she opened in January 2018, “because there is such a huge demand, we would love to be able to offer it to more people”.

She runs summer camps for children aged three to six, partly so that a wider range of children can experience the early learning centre that has been a passion project for her and her husband, Declan Glynn, who designed and built the facilities on land gifted by her father.

Policy-makers and regulators in Ireland are yet to fully catch up with the growing recognition of the benefits for preschool children immersed in the outdoors, for optimum learning and physical and mental development.


All early years services are inspected on the basis of 2016 regulations, which do require children attending the services to have daily access to a safe and suitable outdoor space. But there are no specific regulations geared towards preschools that operate fully, or mainly, outdoors, so they have to tick the boxes of indoor operations.

That’s why only 22 children can attend the preschool that Glynn runs as a part-time service with three other staff, based on indoor classroom floor space per child. But the children spend 99 per cent of their time outdoors and have other sheltered areas, such as a floored polytunnel, “if it’s lashing rain”, she says. Yet, she has kept the indoor classroom heated all winter just in case they need to go into it, or if an inspector arrives unannounced.

It’s a similar story at Curious by Nature in Co Wicklow, which Michelle Lavelle opened in September 2018. However, as it is a “sessional” service, offering children just the three hours daily covered by the free Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) scheme, it can take two sequential groups of 22 children.

“We are in a large country area and we have quite a large outdoor environment that would definitely accommodate more children, but the regulations at the moment don’t allow that,” says Lavelle, who works with four other staff. “Parents are so much more aware now and educated around the benefits of the outdoors.” Initially, they may simply think it is good for their children to be in the fresh air but there is much more complexity to it than that, she stresses.

At the start of the year, Lavelle organises a parents’ evening during which they get a frank briefing and a tour of the outdoor setting in Stratford on Slaney, near Baltinglass, where there is a series of zoned areas, some with overhead shelter, each geared towards a different aspect of child development. Children move freely between them.

“It’s not just the children, it’s a journey for the family as well,” she says of a style of early years education unfamiliar to many adults here. While parents might see, for instance, the mud kitchen as just a place for getting hands dirty, the professionals recognise it as a multi-sensorial space, where hands-on activity is building up children’s immunity and their resilience; they are learning about weight and improving hand-eye co-ordination.

Everybody, including policy-makers and regulators, realises this is a really good thing for children

—  Frances Byrne, Early Childhood Ireland

Spend any time observing the freedom, engagement and happiness of children in an outdoor preschool and it’s hard to imagine any parent not wanting this for their child. Scientific research backs up first impressions of the benefits.

Prof Ellen Beate Hansen Sandseter of Queen Maud University College of Early Childhood Education in Trondheim, Norway, has conducted extensive research into children’s experience of outdoor play and their wellbeing. A particular focus of her work has been “risky play”, which can be loosely defined as “thrilling and challenging play that involves uncertainty and a risk of physical injury”. While this concept might cause palpitations in adherents of helicopter parenting, it is likely to be a means of safeguarding rather than endangering children in the long-term.

Exactly why parents have become so risk-averse for their children within the space of one or two generations is a bit of a mystery. Sandseter (50) finds her peers internationally tend to recall the freedom to roam outdoors that they enjoyed as children, yet don’t allow the same for their children. Despite the world being generally safer than ever, “we seem to get more and more nervous and afraid of everything”, she tells The Irish Times, after addressing a conference here on outdoor education, hosted by Early Childhood Ireland (ECI).

There is certainly more happening outdoors in early education, says ECI’s director of policy and advocacy, Frances Byrne, who is hopeful that regulations will be adapted to reflect this. “Everybody, including policy-makers and regulators, realises this is a really good thing for children,” she says.

Increased activity in outdoor education is partly attributable to the Covid pandemic, which prompted a necessary, widespread appreciation of the value of being outside. All creches had to at least develop outdoor “transition” areas for the handover of children to and from parents who were not allowed on the premises.

A Government “playing outside” capital grant scheme distributed €5 million in 2021 to early learning services to enhance outdoor spaces.

Almost two-thirds of people now believe that children in preschools should spend most of their time outdoors, according to research conducted by Red C for ECI earlier this year. Some 64 per cent of the 1,000 polled agreed with the statement that “in Nordic countries, children in creches spend much of their time outdoors, unless temperatures drop very low. This should be the norm in Ireland too.”

The outdoors is much more conducive to enabling risky play than an indoor classroom. We’re not talking about abandoning children to fend for themselves in the wild, but rather offering them opportunities, with hands-off supervision, to learn and test themselves with activities involving height, speed, real tools and natural features such as open water and fire pits. All activities are risk-assessed as required in any pre-school and neither of the operators interviewed here have had insurance problems.

Sandseter’s wealth of observational research in Norway, where preschools spend most of their time outdoors, has left her in no doubt about the developmental value of risky play. From a physical perspective, children are challenging their bodies, their muscles, their co-ordination, their reaction times and spatial skills, she explains. They develop stronger and more co-ordinated bodies, with better gross and fine motor skills. It is also the best form of injury prevention, she argues, because it gives them the chance to learn how to assess and manage dangers.

“Children very seldom seek risks that are far beyond what they can manage,” she explains. Left to their own devices, they build up their competence step by step. If parents could invest a little time in just observing their children, they could become more relaxed and confident about their off-spring’s capabilities, she suggests.

“I sometimes see in a playground, children are running around the play equipment and parents are sitting on a bench with their nose down in their cell phones. They really miss out on so much knowledge of their own child by not being attentive to what the children are doing. I don’t want them to intrude in the play, but I want them to be attentive to what is happening.”

Psychologically, risky play also helps children work through the innate fears we are born with, such as those of great heights, deep water and separation from parents, “to avoid killing ourselves when we’re very small”, she says. But “if you don’t get rid of that fear, it won’t suit you in adulthood”.

Therapists who treat adults struggling with phobias advocate what children do naturally through play, namely to take a step-by-step approach to what they fear and gradually learn how to handle it. From the perspective of evolutionary psychology, Sandseter says, “we are designed to approach the things we fear in order to manage them, so we don’t carry these fears into adulthood where they become a problematic disorder”.

Being outside engages all of their senses, all at the same time, which is optimal for learning

—  Katie Glynn, Willow Outdoor Preschool

While she has not investigated a potential link between lack of free, outdoor play and the proliferation of anxiety and other mental health issues among adolescents and young adults, she acknowledges work in this area in the US. For example, Peter Gray, an evolutionary psychologist and research professor at Boston College, concludes from his research that depriving children of self-directed, adventurous play can reduce their sense of personal control and ability to manage emotions, and also increase social isolation and unhappiness.

Sandseter has studied the social benefits of risky play: “We know from observations that much of risky play also involves co-operation between children because they are in a problem-solving situation, trying to do something that is a bit scary that they haven’t done before. They often co-operate in trying to manage the risks, so it gives a lot of development of social skills.”

Glynn and Lavelle see all these findings in action every working day among the children that attend their preschools.

“Being outside engages all of their senses, all at the same time, which is optimal for learning,” says Glynn. “When they are outside, they have more space; everything is opened-ended material and they are more likely to invent their own games and be more independent.”

With greater space between them and their educators, if these pre-schoolers have a problem, they are more likely to try to solve it themselves, rather than call on an adult from the other side of the garden, or their peers will come along and help.

It’s amazing to see their social skills develop and they become a lot more self-directed, she says. Visitors who come to see how an outdoor preschool works are “really blown away” by the competence and independence of the children, reports Glynn, who was inspired by Sally O’Donnell’s pioneering Glen Outdoor Early Learning Centre outside Letterkenny in Co Donegal.

“Our curriculum is child-led and inquiry based, but adult scaffolded,” says Glynn. Activities emerge from following the children’s interests and what is happening in the season. “The learning opportunities are endless.”

While it’s natural for parents to have safety fears, “children are amazing at self-preservation – they will mind themselves”. They climb the trees but, if they’re not confident, they won’t go further. “The ones who do go up are the ones who are able to manage themselves up high and then come back down.”

As regards clothing, they know themselves when to discard or add layers without being told, she says of the children who arrive fully dressed in waterproof gear and wellies. They go home the same way but “sometimes we have to hose them down first”, she laughs.

It is lovely to have that reassurance we are doing it well. I just love what I do

—  Michelle Lavelle, Curious by Nature preschool

For children learning outdoors, there is none of the constraints on movement or having to talk quietly that classrooms impose, points out Lavelle, and it’s “a wonderful environment” for those with additional needs. Weather can be a challenge at times “but you just have to adapt and overcome”, she says and, although children always have the choice, they never opt for the indoor classroom.

“Sadly, we’re in a time where technology is so prevalent, we need to go back to basics. Children are so amazing and resilient and we don’t give them credit for their ability to deal with these things.” She believes it is very reassuring for busy parents, who use her service to know their preschool child has been outdoors each day for three hours.

Initially, Lavelle wondered how the children would cope with moving on to a traditional primary school. But local teachers tell her they know when their pupils have come from the outdoors setting, through their resilience, better developed fine and gross motor skills and good spatial awareness. “Their health and wellbeing overall have been enhanced.”

With all preschools subject to inspection by both Tusla and the Department of Education, Lavelle was delighted to get an “exemplary” rating from the latter last year. “It is lovely to have that reassurance we are doing it well. I just love what I do,” she adds, “and to see the sector moving towards the outdoors is wonderful for everybody.”

Tusla, in response to queries from The Irish Times, says it welcomes the continued expansion of the use of outdoor spaces and notes the numerous documented benefits to the health, welfare and development of children. It acknowledges the expertise and commitment to outdoor development being demonstrated by providers across the country.

It also acknowledges that the 2016 regulations “do not specifically address all of the relevant provisions for services that are operating fully or largely outdoors”. But it points out that it can only enforce the current regulations, and that responsibility for any amendments lies with the Department of Children. However, a Tusla spokeswoman adds, “to support providers who are already operating outdoors and those considering doing so, in June of this year the Early Years Inspectorate will publish a guidance document”.

In a public consultation by the Department on early years regulations, details of which were published in April, some participants requested specific regulations for fully outdoors services, while others believed the current ones could be adapted. A Department spokeswoman says its current focus is on strengthening Tusla enforcement powers and inclusion of childminders in the regulations and consideration of whether any changes are needed in relation to outdoor provision will not occur before 2024.

Doreen Watson, a service manager with the Care Inspectorate in Scotland, briefed those attending the ECI conference on how its regulatory system deals with the challenges and considerations of outdoor early years education. It does have the flexibility to take into account high-quality outdoor facilities and space in determining numbers of children allowed to attend a service.

The inspectorate produced a mission statement looking at the risk-benefit of risky play, “giving services permission, if you like, to embrace wonderful experiences they can have outdoors”, she tells The Irish Times. It recognises that children are capable little human beings and can do more than we give them credit for, she adds.

Sandseter’s advice for the early childhood sector in Ireland is to ensure there is appropriate training of staff for outdoor education and to bring parents on board.

“I think it is really, really positive that Ireland is pushing on this. I wouldn’t say to ‘bring in’ outdoor play or nature,” she adds, “but just to ‘bring it back’ to childhood.”

‘Risk-benefit’ rewards

It would be remiss not to incorporate risky play into children’s everyday experiences, considering the rewards in terms of “risk-benefit”, according to the National Síolta Aistear Initiative, which guides the implementation of the early learning and care curriculum frameworks.

In its tip sheet on risky play for children aged one to six, it acknowledges that play with real tools and with/near natural elements, in particular fire, represent a greater level of challenge for out-of-home settings.

Risky play is categorised as follows:

1 Rough and tumble: wrestling and play fighting.

2 Disappear/get lost: when children have a sense of not being in the sight of adults.

3 Great heights: from ramps and steps for toddlers, to trees and balance beams for older children.

4 Great speed: swings, slides and bicycles.

5 Real world tools: using real cooking utensils, knives, screwdrivers and hammers.

6 Natural elements: play with or near natural features such as water and fire.

Sheila Wayman

Sheila Wayman

Sheila Wayman, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about health, family and parenting