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Nurseries must not shy away from letting children take risks, says Ofsted

Article By: Melissa McAlees

Nurseries could be harming children’s development by removing climbing frames and avoiding trips to the park over fears children might hurt themselves, Ofsted’s chief inspector has warned.

Credit: Red pepper/

Amanda Spielman said that nurseries must not shy away from taking children on trips or engaging in outdoor activities due to fears about health and safety.

Speaking at the Nursery World Business Summit on 8 November, she commented: “We expect you to take risk seriously and supervise young children properly. But we don’t expect you to take away the climbing frame in case someone falls or avoid journeys to the park for fear of crossing the road.

“It goes without saying that children need physical exercise to develop their muscular strength and dexterity but it is also important that their natural instincts to discover and explore aren’t stifled. This is, after all, one of the ways they learn.”

Children are ‘effectively being reared in captivity’

Figures released by charity Play England reveal that one in five children do not go outside to play and are more likely to go to hospital for falling out of bed than out of a tree.

Childhood play expert, Tim Gill, claims children are now “effectively being reared in captivity” as the fear of them being harmed is causing them to grow up in a cotton wool world where “their horizons are shrinking”.

While risky play can sound like a red flag for childcare providers, experts suggest it has many benefits, from improving children’s confidence, resilience and social skills to motivating them to problem-solve. It is defined as giving children opportunities to encounter potential hazards in play, without putting them in danger of serious harm.

Jo Baranek, lead early years advisor at National Day Nurseries Association (NDNA), said: “There are three types of risk: emotional, physical and mental. Good risks in play include those that support children’s learning and use their imagination.

She added: “Ninety-nine per cent of the time, we find that the benefits of risky play outweigh the risks. Nursery staff need to think about how to bring parents and children on board.”

Room for imagination


In 2015, York House Nursery in County Durham introduced real tools to the setting, providing children as young as two-years-old with first-hand experiences of holding and manipulating tools.

Whereas critics point out that arming young children with heavy and sharp equipment can be overtly dangerous, advocates suggest the implementation of real tools enriches children’s learning.

Barbara Corrigan, manager at York House Nursery, said: “Can you imagine digging in the garden with a plastic spade or cutting a cucumber with a plastic knife and the frustration it could cause?

“We introduced real tools with the initial idea of providing real life experiences for our children. Incorporating these into the nursery environment has made it more inviting for the children, which in turn, has made them more focused and motivated to learn.”

Tops Day Nurseries, which has 19 settings, also ensure ‘children can be children’ and continue to provide them with endless opportunities to explore their surroundings, climb higher and reach further. This includes using bow saws, building shelters, crossing rivers, climbing trees, jumping over a stream and building dens — all without adult interference.

A spokesperson for Tops Day Nurseries commented: “When children are allowed to engage freely in adventurous play they quickly learn to assess their own skills and match them to the demands of the environment. If unsuccessful the first time, they tend to be resilient and rebound quickly; either trying again and again until they master the situation or wisely avoid it, whichever they choose is the best decision.”

Exploring boundaries

Other nurseries, such as Bright Horizons Family Solutions, have turned to health and safety mascots as a pedagogical resource to embed a culture of behavioural safety during risky play.

The group, which operates over 200 nurseries in the UK, incorporates the concept of risk at an early stage to ensure children develop behavioural safety instincts that stay with them for life.


“Our fundamental belief is that awareness and management of risk is a key life skill for children,” said Michelle Demirtas, workforce learning and development facilitator.

“Candy Floss, our health and safety mascot, helps even the youngest learn how to make safe choices, risk assess and manage their own safety, which are all key skills and help set them up for a safe future. From using knives and cooking equipment safely, to crossing the road and washing hands, Candy Floss is present throughout the nursery day and helps children understand how they can stay safe both in nursery and at home.”

’If you over protect a child, they will never learn how to make mistakes’

While some nurseries have previously been penalised by Ofsted for failing to safeguard children, Ms Spielman, who was appointed in January, admitted the watchdog had not “always got it right in the past” but said she now wanted nurseries to feel safe to allow children to explore.

“I am acutely aware that Ofsted hasn’t always got this right in the past. I want to be sure that our inspections and our inspectors aren’t driving any of the risk-averse behaviour.

“In the next few weeks, our inspectors will be doing some refresher training on how we look at safeguarding. And I do expect future inspection frameworks to be more explicit about the balance between risk and safety, always keeping in mind the requirements of the Early Years Foundation Stage.”


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