Risky Outdoor Play Can Boost Science Education


Key points:

  • Early Childhood Educators can use risky outdoor play to teach children about scientific concepts.
  • An activity like climbing a tree can be used as an opportunity to teach concepts such as gravity.
  • The research follows previous studies which highligh the benefit of outdoor learning, including ‘Bush Kinder’ programs.

Risky play should be incorporated into early childhood science education in nature-based settings to lay early foundations for science education.

In a new research paper published in the Early Childhood Education Journal, Dr Chris Speldewinde, from Deakin University’s Centre in Education, Research for Educational Impact (REDI), examined how educators use children’s risky play – like climbing and building campfires – to seek out opportunities to teach children about physical, chemical and biological science.

A ‘potent’ education tool

‘In the realm of early childhood education, the fusion of risky play and science teaching has emerged as a potent tool for fostering children’s understanding of the natural world,” Dr Speldewinde says.

Dr Speldewinde analysed existing research in early years science education, curriculum frameworks and early childhood learning programs, and visited bush kinder sites to observe pre-schoolers in action.

The findings underscore the intrinsic link between children’s exploration of risk and their scientific understanding, suggesting that exposure to risky play in natural settings facilitates experiential learning opportunities.

The study called out specific examples where educators used risky play as an opportunity to impart a scientific concept.

‘When children navigate obstacles and balance on logs or engage in rough and tumble play, it provides opportunities for educators to impart knowledge about force and motion. By embracing risk, children not only develop physical skills but also deepen their understanding of scientific principles such as gravity when they fall out of a tree,’ Dr Speldewinde says.

‘Similarly, messy play serves as a gateway to exploring chemical science. When children mix elements in nature, like earth and water to create mud, it offers educators opportunities to teach about material properties and transformations.’

The study also highlighted the intersection of risky play with biological science. Researchers observed children navigating the inherent risks of natural environments, from encounters with wildlife to handling fungi, and teachers explaining to children about ecosystems and life cycles.

Lilttle boy climbs a tree

By embracing risk, children not only develop physical skills but also deepen their understanding of scientific principles such as gravity when they fall out of a tree, says Dr Speldewinde.

With risk comes reward

Dr Speldewinde says that in recent years, advocates of early childhood education and care have raised concerns regarding the availability for children to access opportunities to develop resilience and self-regulation through adventures and risk-taking.

‘Safety legislation in Western societies has been a contributor to planning and organising play environments and how children’s play is organised.

‘Research has found that risk management guidelines are likely to restrict free play in nature, thus limiting children’s development and learning opportunities.’

Growing popularity of Bush Kinder

Bush Kinders – either standalone programs or programs incorporated into early childhood settings like kindergartens and childcare centres – have been growing in popularity in Australia since the 2010s.

Previous research led by Dr Speldewinde showed that preschool aged children who participate in ‘bush kinder’ programs could have better education outcomes than those who stay indoors. Co-authored by Deakin Professor Coral Campbell, the 2022 study found girls benefit from engaging in non-gendered outdoor play because it allows greater freedom to play creatively with unstructured natural materials.

‘We know the benefits children derive from spending time in nature, however research in this area, particularly concerning science education opportunities, has been limited,’ Dr Speldewinde says.

‘Further research is needed to explore how risky play influences children’s long-term engagement with science and STEM disciplines. By fostering a deeper affinity with science in nature through risky play, educators can lay the groundwork for lifelong curiosity and learning.’

About Dr Chris Speldewinde

Dr Chris Speldewinde is a Research Fellow at the School of Education and the Centre for Research for Educational Impact (REDI). He conducts research on bush kinders and nature-based education in early childhood, early childhood STEM education and also works on a number of other projects focussing on primary and secondary school education.

  • Over 50 sole and co-authored research publications.
  • Author of a recent publication in Early Childhood Australia’s Research in Practice Series titled STEM in Bush Kinders (2022; with Professor Coral Campbell and Associate Professor Anna Kilderry).
  • Research has appeared in high quality education journals including Educational Researcher, Australian Journal of Environmental Education, and Journal of Outdoor and Environmental Education.
  • Has experience teaching undergraduate and postgraduate education programs at Deakin University and the University of Melbourne.
  • Winner Vice Chancellor’s Award: Industry Engagement in Research: Girls as Leaders in STEM (GALS) Project, Deakin University, 2022.
  • Winner Dean’s Award for Teaching Excellence and Innovation, University of Melbourne, 2023.
  • Winner of Early Childhood Australia (Victoria) Doctoral Thesis Award, 2023.

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