Examples of Outdoor Environments that Support Adventurous, Challenging and Risky Play

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course8-lesson2-topic2-photo1Adventure playgrounds were started in 1943 by a Danish landscape architect, Sørensen. After observing children’s play in construction sites and junkyards, he wanted to provide children with dedicated spaces to foster play that were otherwise prohibited. During the postwar era in England, more adventure playgrounds were established in a reaction to the lack of interest children showed in traditional playgrounds. Adventure playground play is meant to be child-centred and child-directed. Children create and modify their own environments. While there are estimates of approximately 1,000 adventure playgrounds in Europe, they are not widespread in North America, which is believed to be the result of culture-specific safety concerns. Adventure playgrounds have the potential to provide safe play environments that afford children opportunities for risk taking. Adults that provide children with these types of outdoor play experiences are encouraged to undertake a risk-benefit assessment to determine benefits and risks in order to manage the risk of injury (Brussoni, Olsen, Pike and Sleet, 2012).

In Britain, adventure playgrounds have been supported by playworkers.  Playworkers are adults trained to safely facilitate challenge, adventurous and risky play. In North America, creating an additional profession or accreditation for adults working with children has not seemed as important to society, due in part to the attitudes toward outdoor play and the lack of adventure playgrounds. As outlined in the History and Culture module, these playgrounds had a post-war surge that later declined and are only now beginning to see a resurrection as a strategy to address children’s health and development issues. In Britain, there is concern that their many adventure playgrounds could run the risk of closure because of austerity measures. In 2016, the Playwork Foundation published a list of reasons of why adventure playgrounds should not be closed. Click on each reason to reveal more information.

Not Cost Saving

The primary reason for the threat to adventure playgrounds is the need to cut costs in the face of decreasing budgets. Closing adventure playgrounds does not really save money. The homemade equipment, use of recycled materials and the self-servicing maintenance of traditional adventure playgrounds mean they require almost no capital expenditures after the initial building is in place.

Impact on children’s futures

The long-term social impact on children’s future life change as well as on the opportunities for staff and volunteers in the community has been found to far exceed the costs of keeping adventure playgrounds open.

Adventure playgrounds have an important role in the lives of local children, their families and communities

Most adventure playgrounds are unique, the only such facilities in their area. They are free at the point of access and open when families most need them, offering invaluable opportunities to children and young people otherwise deprived of safe places to play. They are not just places to play; because they are staffed, they are also self-contained communities, places of social safety and support, important resources not only for children but also for their hard-pressed families and communities (Beunderman, 2010).

Space for children to play is vital for their health

Research suggests there is evidence that play leads to overall improvements in children’s health and well-being including their mental health, increase in levels of physical activity and in children’s levels of well-being.

Playing improves outcomes for children

Since adventure playgrounds are generally situated in high need areas and used by children potentially at risk, they contribute to closing the gap between those who do well and those who need extra support to thrive, and support their improved resilience (Lester and Russell, 2008).

UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989)

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) protects children’s right to play under its Article 31. In 2013, the UN issued a General Comment on this article, saying play ‘is fundamental to the quality of childhood, to children’s entitlement to optimum development, to the promotion of resilience and to the realisation of other rights’. It says that article 31 places governments under an obligation to undertake whatever action may be necessary.

Once gone, they will be lost forever

If these sites are either closed for redevelopment or turned into unstaffed, fixed equipment play areas, these invaluable facilities will be lost forever, diminishing the lives and life chances of local children. Closing adventure playgrounds, most of which have evolved over generations, would be to trash one of the UK’s great grass-roots cultural legacies, a community tradition famed the world over and which has been emulated from New York to Iraq.


Forest schools involve children being outside in all weather conditions experiencing elements such as fire and water, both of which can be considered risky. According to Forest School Canada, Forest School (FS) this is an educational approach that has existed worldwide since the late 1950s, with over ten thousand Forest School programs in the UK alone. In FS, children spend anywhere from a half day to a full day outdoors in various urban and near-urban parks, natural spaces adjacent to or on school grounds, or natural playgrounds and outdoor classrooms in both urban and rural environments. For instance, some programs are offered to children half a day per week, whereas other schools and early years centres have embraced this approach on a more full-time basis, resulting in children spending the majority of their days outdoors. In Canada, the forest school movement is in its infancy. It takes time to grow a movement. Even if children do not get to attend a forest school, there are increasingly more early learning programs that are offering children many opportunities to engage in outdoor play experiences and learning, similar to a forest school experience. Read about the adventures of one program, where children attend a forest school on professional activity days. Sometimes, the same children return and sometimes there are new children. Reflect on how these teachers approach risk.


The giant fallen tree quickly lured the children as a climbing structure. We discussed the potential risks, and the children offered suggestions about how we might be able to climb the log. One child proclaimed “we could use another tree for balance” another offered “we could crawl instead of walk”. We pondered these ideas, and decided to stay on our bottoms as we moved across the massive trunk. The burl in the middle proved to be a hurdle that the children quickly overcame.  As we continued through the forest, we came upon another fallen tree, with its gnarly roots exposed; some children expressed a need to stop for a rest, so we explored the interesting patterns of the root system. One child found a treasure hidden among the tangled roots. It was a jar, with a note pad and pencil inside. We wondered about who could have left this here, and where it might have come from. We decided we should leave a note, so one child sat down and coloured a page for all of us to sign.  

While one group explored the forest, the younger group started along a trail that soon became an investigation of ice puddles on the path. The children slowed down as they approached the ice and explored ways of moving across ice that mitigated their risk of slipping.  Some used small sliding steps, while others took on the waddle of a penguin. With buckets in tow, items of great significance (pine cones, leaves, milkweed pods) were collected along the way.

As we continued along the trail, we came across a course8-lesson2-topic2-photo4wide deep puddle that was mostly frozen with a couple of inches of melt water on the surface. Some areas along the edge crackled when children stepped on it and this broke the ice. The children slowly maneuvered along the surface testing out weak areas and more solid areas of ice. As various slices of ice broke away from the edge, some children began collecting the ice, as the ice became representations of magnifying glasses or windows for a bug home.  Grasses frozen in place under the ice were being identified as forming various letters of the alphabet when a child called out, “Look, it’s a T in there!” 

This may or may not be a typical morning in forest school because time spent outside is unpredictable, exciting and challenging. It normally gives children opportunities to play and experience the elements, earth, wind, fire and air. These elements can be risky and dangerous if not properly understood or prepared for.  These spaces support children in adventure and challenge.