Identifying and characterizing risky play in the age one-to-three years

Kleppe, R., Melhuish, E., & Sandseter, E. B. H.
European Early Childhood Education Research Journal, 25(3), 370-385.


This study explores the occurrence and characteristics of risky play for children aged 1-3 years. The purpose is to investigate more closely whether the existing definition of risky play applies to this age group, or whether alternative definitions or adaptations are necessary. Risky play is generally defined as nerve-wracking and exciting forms of physical play involving uncertainty and a risk of getting hurt.


The authors conclude that the existing definition and characteristics of risky play also apply for 2-3-year-olds. With regard to the 1-year-olds, the study suggests several deviations from the existing understanding of risky play. According to the authors, this should, of course, be viewed in relation to the motor development of 1-year-olds, and particularly their ability to walk. The analysis shows that 1-year-old children take part in fewer risky activities than the slightly older children, and when they play, they do not show the same open body language or facial expressions as the slightly older children. According to the authors, the 1-year-old children thus express fewer emotions, particularly when playing alone. The authors find that the 1-year-olds' risky play typically consists of short stand-alone situations, and this also deviates from the slightly older children's risky play. One-year-old children primarily take part in risky activities through play with dangerous objects (elements), where the concept dangerous can be understood subjectively, i.e. based on how 1-year-old children perceive risks in different situations. The very young children's risky play therefore involves exploration and testing of the children's surroundings and their bodies in relation to the surroundings.

In an attempt to expand on the existing understanding of risky play, the authors suggest adding the category "playing with impact", which includes young children playing by throwing themselves down into some mattresses or by riding their bike into a fence, as well as the category "vicarious risk", which involves young children's observations of older children's risky play. The authors interpret the latter category as a before-phase in very young children's risk tolerance, which includes potential learning aspects. Based on the results of the study, the authors suggest the following adapted definition of risky play: Play involving uncertainty and exploration – bodily, emotional, sensory or environmental – which may have either positive or negative consequences.



The data collection builds on observations (including video recordings and field notes) as well as a survey of the occurrence of risky play among children aged 1-3 years at five different ECEC centres. A total of 26 1-year-old children, 20 2-year-old children and seven 3-year-old children participated in the study, and were observed for 10-12 days in total. However, the group of 1-year-olds was observed for an additional three to four days. The children were observed in all activities and transitions between activities, and the main purpose was to determine whether a behaviour could be characterised as risky play. Any situation considered potentially dangerous by the child, the staff or the observer was therefore surveyed and described with focus on actions, facial expressions, body language, voice/sounds and verbal expressions by both the staff and the children.

In addition, the following information was collected for each occurrence of risky play: Who (with codes for individual persons, gender and age), what (with descriptions of activities), staff reactions/interference (with descriptions of interaction), place (with codes for indoors/outdoors), sociality (with codes for alone/together), and duration (with codes for long/short). In order to determine whether the children's play can be characterised as risky, the analysis distinguished between environmental and individual characteristics. The environmental characteristics were defined on the basis of objective risk, involving predefined, observable or measurable risk (for example height, speed, unstable surface), while the individual characteristics were defined on the basis of subjective risk, entailing how the child perceives risk in different situations (for example via body language, facial expressions, sounds or words).


Kleppe, R., Melhuish, E., & Sandseter, E. B. H. (2017). Identifying and characterizing risky play in the age one-to-three years. European Early Childhood Education Research Journal, 25(3), 370-385.

Financed by

The Research Council of Norway