The power of ‘risky play’

Playing outdoors has countless benefits. It is healthy, it reduces stress and those who play outside need their glasses less often. But there is more. By encouraging risky play to children you also stimulate their cognitive, emotional and motor development. Risky play is also extremely important for children in learning how to assess risks and discover what their limits are. Within the 'The power of risky play' project, researchers of Utrecht University investigate on this together with children, parents, professionals and policy makers. 

The research focus area Sport & Society of Utrecht University and UMC Utrecht focuses on two interdisciplinary research projects in 2020 en 2021: The Power of Risky Play and Institutions as bad barrels: criminal undermining of sport clubs. Both projects are financed by Sport & Society and the participating faculties.

Prof. Louk Vanderschuren (Utrecht University, Veterinary Science, Population Health Sciences) and prof. Kristine De Martelaer (Utrecht University, Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences, Education and Pedagogy / Vrije Universiteit Brussel) wrote a position paper for The Power of Risky Play. With dr. Kirsten Visser (Utrecht University, Faculty of Geosciences, Human Geography and Spatial Planning) and Martin van Rooijen (University of Humanistic Studies) they are the core research team for this project.

How does the social and physical environment stimulate risky play?

Both the physical and social environment are important for children's risky play. Physical and natural elements (trees, water, playground equipment etc.) can stimulate risky play, but the social environment - such as: other children, parents and supervisors - can also influence the extent to which children take risks when playing outside. Do children want to take risks, but are they impeded from doing so by their parents? Or are they encouraged to do so by their friends? And do children, parents and supervisors have the same ideas about what kind of play, and what elements in the playground, are considered risky?

To answer these questions, a team of researchers from the Department of Human Geography and Spatial Planning of Utrecht University is doing research since March on two playgrounds in Rotterdam (see below) together with Ravottuh, part of Buurtlab. They look at how the two playgrounds are designed to stimulate risky play (see map) and how these places are used by children. In addition, they interviewed children and parents to find out about their perceptions of risky outdoor play.

Moreover, policy makers also determine what a playground should look like. What do they actually think about risks? How does this influence how playgrounds are designed? And what are the obstacles and opportunities in implementing risky playgrounds? Therefore, we talk to several policy makers about decision making and the embedding of risky play in policy.

Tekening van zones in speelterrein Hoogvliet

Experiences in the playgrounds

A group of students is also involved in the research team. They have already made a number of interesting observations. In the autumn of 2021, the researchers will present all the results of the research, but the students have already noticed this:

  • Climbing and jumping are very popular, but most children do not experience this as exciting because many play objects are not 'very high'.
  • Parents play an important role. Some children are not allowed by their parents to get dirty and therefore do not play with water or sand. All children indicate that romping and fighting are not allowed. Boys often say they do it nevertheless, girls say they do not.
  • During the interviews, parents often refer to how they themselves used to play and what they liked to do.
  • You can learn to play risky! Younger children (around 5 years old) quietly go on adventures and take small risks. Older children (around 8 years) who do not participate in Ravottuh from an early age, are playing much rougher, which makes the game much more likely to get physical and get out of hand.

More information

You can find more information on this project here:

In the media


In het onderzoeksteam zijn de volgende onderzoekers betrokken:


Dr. Kirsten Visser: