Risky play

Toddler risky play: how we got up the research project and what we found

It isn’t often you see the terms ‘teacher research’ and ‘toddler risky play’ in the one sentence. So you can imagine we gained some media attention when we did.

Of course mainstream media focused on what we were doing with toddler risky play (more about that later) but this was just one part of a larger research project undertaken by the University of Newcastle and local early childhood centres. 

It all began with the ‘pedagogista’

The project began when Melissa Duffy-Fagan, a Newcastle early childhood centre Director, approached University of Newcastle Associate Professor, Linda Newman, to discuss the possibility of engaging with the university to institute the role of ‘pedagogista’ in her centre. This concept is drawn from work in Reggio Emilia in Italy, where early childhood centres have educational learning leaders as part of their team to support and mentor staff in their work with children, families and the community.

The original idea of establishing a pedagogista role was extended to invite four local early childhood long day care centres to join in collaboratively with Linda Newman and fellow researcher, Nicole Leggett, in designing and running a year-long practitioner research project that had the dual intentions of professional learning (approved by the NSW Education Standards Authority as professional development hours) and research.

The group decided to embed the two core concepts of Intentional Teaching and critical thinking within the project design. In some ways, the network members therefore shared the role of pedagogista, supporting and mentoring each other in their research journeys.

The research consisted of two main parts. The first was the university-focused research about the educators’ experiences and perceptions within a networked and extended professional learning situation. This research examined professional identities and growth, knowledge of core project concepts and views about professional learning. The second was locally specific action research designed and implemented by each of four centres, with two projects focused on adult learning and change, and two focused on children:

  • Centre 1: Intentional Strategies for Team Collaboration: Building Trust through Professional Connection (examination of how critical thinking facilitates intentional strategies for team collaboration).
  • Centre 2: Taking a Risk with Risk Competence (Toddler and pre-schooler risky play).
  • Centre 3: Enhancing teaching practice and children’s learning opportunities: Examining educators’ understandings of their program roles (Examining roles and responsibilities in a family-grouped long day care centre).
  • Centre 4: Strengthening transition to school: Insights into adult and child perspectives (Examining the shift from early childhood centre to school).

Over the period of a year the group ran two conferences, held four leadership roundtable workshops and engaged in centre visits to mentor the research.

Risky Play in Early Childhood

Adamstown Community Early Learning and Preschool (Centre 2) undertook their research on the topic of young children’s risky play. Kate Higginbottom, the Director of the centre, pulled together a team of highly experienced and diversely qualified educators; Katie Carrington, Gemma Helm, Kelly Hennessy and April Wood as the project leadership team. They set out to plan, implement and report on their research within a partnership involving the university and the early learning service.

As well as engaging in the initial University of Newcastle professional learning sessions, the project team regularly met and unpacked the service core values to establish a need or interest as the basis for their research question.

Risk in early childhood is a controversial, yet inevitable part of a child’s life and it is particularly controversial when we consider risky play as a part of early education curriculums. Children are innate risk- based learners and need to experience risk to know how to manage it.

As the Adamstown Community Early Learning and Preschool provides a service that strongly values a ‘risk based philosophy’ to children’s learning and play, rather than avoiding risk, educators at the centre unanimously agreed that their research question should be focused on the inclusion of risky play: “How do risk focused interventions impact upon children’s risk competence?”

Reflecting on the project’s core concepts of critical thinking and intentional teaching, the team aimed to focus on how intentionally teaching and prompting children to engage in risk would impact on their perception, assessment and management of risk. Data generation was grounded in Sandseter’s six categories of risky play and centre educators set out to understand what intentional teaching strategies were already used.

These include:

  1. Play at Great Heights
  2. Play with High Speed
  3. Play with Dangerous Elements
  4. Play Rough and Tumble
  5. Lost/ Disappear
  6. Play with Dangerous tools

After collecting and analysing initial data, a change plan was implemented over a six-week period. This included professional learning about risky play for educators, providing additional spaces and resources to promote risky play and the conscious use of intentional teaching and sustained shared thinking between educators and children.

Following the analysis of the second data set it was determined that:

  • Educators’ confidence in risky play improved, which in turn provided a significant increase in the amount of risky play opportunities children were exposed to.
  • Children used more language associated with risk assessment and risk management when reflecting on the risky play.
  • Children were engaged more often and autonomously, with a significant decrease in physical and verbal support required by educators and therefore an increase in children’s risk competency.
  • Following an unintentional gender prejudice identified in initial data, an increase in girls’ participation was seen and therefore challenged gender bias for a more balanced curriculum of risky play.
  • We know through the underpinnings of Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory that social and cultural contexts greatly influence children’s learning and here the service observed increased incidences of children working together to solve problems and best manage risks. For example the team observed children reminding one another to remove their socks when climbing as it may be too slippery and having feet exposed to allow them to ‘stick’ to the climbing object.

So children at the centre had increased their competence to undertake risky play. Their language around safety and risk had increased and more girls were undertaking challenges outside.

The centre team increased their intentional teaching about risk and safety, and agreed that these successes had been achievable because they had been given the space and guidance to choose their own professional learning topic, and to engage in a sustained research project in which they had autonomy and agency. The participating educators say they now feel stronger and more capable as professionals and committed to embedding research into their ongoing practice.

Our work will be presented at the European Early Childhood Education Research Association Conference in Italy in August 2017


Linda Newman (Dip. T (EC); B.Ed (EC); M.Ed (Hons); Ed.D.) has worked in the early childhood profession in various capacities for over 30 years. She is currently a Conjoint Associate Professor at The University of Newcastle and Early Childhood Inclusion Advisor at Northcott. Career highlights have included the development of among the first early childhood intervention services in NSW; co-authorship of The Ethical Response Cycle; membership of the Futuro Infantile Hoy (Children’s Futures Today) community capacity building team in poor communities in Chile; and collaborative leadership of Research Connections, an early childhood research network in Newcastle. Linda is co-author of Working with  children and families: Professional, legal and ethical issues and Practitioner Research: International Issues and Perspectives. Research interests in recent years have included teacher professional learning, early childhood teacher workforce issues and early literacy. 


Kate Higginbottom has been in the early childhood profession for over 12 years, the last 10 of which she has been a Centre Director, working across diverse long day care settings from private, to organisational and now the community based sector. She holds a Bachelor of Teaching (Early Childhood) from the University of New England and qualifications in training and assessment. Kate currently manages the operation Adamstown Community Early Learning and Preschool in collaboration with a voluntary management committee. She also supports other early education and care services as a consultant, with a particular forte in quality governance and leadership. Kate has worked in a number of advisory roles including on the Early Childhood and Primary External Advisory committee for University of Newcastle and the Queensland Workforce Council PSCQ for the Gold Coast.