Risky Play on the Schoolyard?

By February 12, 2018Uncategorised

by Petra Eperjesi, Manager of National Programs, and Kara Kulak, teacher, Horace Allen Public School, Alberta

Kara Kulak is a Kindergarten teacher at Horace Allen Public School in Crowsnest Pass, Alberta. She has been an advocate in her school community to find more opportunities to embrace outdoor exploration and learning, and outdoor play that involves healthy and developmentally-appropriate risk-taking. When we heard about the wonderful work Kara and her school community are doing, we knew we wanted to share it! 

Kara, we often get asked how the Forest and Nature School approach can fit in the context of public education. How can teachers start from outdoor free play and be sure that they will meet the curriculum they’re accountable to? How do you fit getting outside to play and explore into your schedule? How do you connect it back to your curriculum?

I have a background in inquiry-based teaching, and a few years ago I started weekly “Wonder Walks” with my kindergarten class around the nature spaces of our school. We started small, on the grassy areas and few trees around our schoolyard. We defined “nature-made” vs. “human-made” items and the kids learned that during our Wonder Walks we were exploring nature, rather than playing on the human-made playground structure. After a few Wonder Walks at our school, we went to explore the great forested park across the road. By the end of the year, we had built up to a hike down to the waterfall at the end of the path.

Our Wonder Walks usually start with a guiding question or topic. Sometimes it’s a topic I pull directly from curriculum (i.e. signs of seasonal change or numbers in nature), but sometimes it’s more open ended (i.e. exploring snow, watching the clouds) and students are practicing language, physical literacy and inquiry through our exploration. Knowing your curriculum is key to creating, or even just noticing outdoor learning experiences. As I watch the kids explore, I am taking pictures and making mental notes of what curricular outcomes they are discovering. I can guide them with a question or a challenge along the way, too.

As you reflect on your curriculum and start to see the opportunities to cover multiple curricular areas and outcomes, while enjoying the benefits and beauty of the outdoors, you can’t not make time for it!

Thanks, Kara. I have also found that knowing the curriculum really well helps me to see the ways in which the students are meeting those expectations authentically and in a self-directed way. Do you ever go on Wonder Walks without a guiding question or topic? Does that look, sound, or feel different at all?

I have a big list going of general Wonder Walk topics I think of, and some reflective or connected activities we can do after returning inside (i.e. journal writing prompts, connected art projects, loose part building activities, etc.), but I have learned I need to be flexible and know to follow the students’ curiosity too! Once I had a plan to inquire into clouds…in the end, it was the most blue-bird day you’ve ever seen – so we studied our shadows. Another time, we were going to watch for the gophers that are always popping their heads up in our field – of course, not a gopher to be seen, but the kids found a ton of worms instead!

Even with a guiding question, the student exploration is quite free, but we also do go outside to play and hike around, too! The kids always find things to explore and learn about even without a specific focusing task. On our school-wide outdoor play days a huge part of the skill building is for students to judge their own risk tolerance when trying new things, and to problem solve with their peers, as staff take a more hand-off approach. It always feels so filled with excitement when kids are outside!

What sparked your school community’s interest in “risky play” and what are some of the steps you’ve taken to support it?

Another teacher at our school runs a lunchtime Eco Club at lunchtime with students. They found out about Earth Play for Earth Day from Earth Play Canada and introduced the staff, students and parents to the idea of spending a whole day playing outside. I jumped on board and we drafted letters to parents asking for loose parts and created the permission form using the guidelines from Earth Play Canada:


Risks and Rules:


When I am here I agree to:

  • Keep all materials and tools within this area
  • Listen to the Play Rangers and ask for help when needed
  • Not hurt myself or anyone else


  • I agree to let my child play here without interference – my child is an expert of their own play!
  • I understand that scratches and bruises may happen here, first aid is available if needed.
  • I know that good play can be messy – my child may get wet, dirty and extremely happy. I’m ok with that!

The day was absolutely magical! Despite the fact that it was at the end of April, we had a huge dump of wet sticky snow that the kids used to build with and create “mud slides” down the hillslope. Teachers and parents stepped back and let the kids be the experts on their own play. It was so much fun (and so easy to implement) that we decided to do it again at the end of the year, instead of the more traditional Track-and-Field type day. This time the weather was warmer and students took off their shoes to climb on the rocks in the creek.

As we started this year, I shared the article from you Petra, about “What to Say When You Want to Say ‘Be Careful’”. We reflected on what a success our Earth Play days were – when the rules and adult intervention were very minimal.  We re-looked at our current “rules” for recess and decided to revamp them to teach students to take care of themselves, each other and our school environment (our 3 school rules) and manage their own play and level of risk more independently.  Initially, we just let it loose and found that some of our “rule follower” kids were feeling a bit shaken and confused as to why we were no longer telling them not to climb the slides/stay off the big hill/keep their hands to themselves.  So we decided to run a week-long series of pre-recess assemblies to introduce the new concepts to them.  We covered Rough and Tumble Play, the playground, the big hill and play with snow.  Through images and skits we explored what was acceptable and what was not (i.e. rough and tumble play is not angry fighting and we still don’t punch and kick our friends, but we could wrestle or tickle them).  We also tied in the “Kelso’s Choices” program our school is using – a series of options kids have to solve “small problems”.

I love that idea of pre-recess assemblies, and that you met the challenges arising on the playground as an opportunity to educate and support, as opposed to just shutting it all down! What a huge success. What have been some of your other greatest successes, victories, or points of pride?

Last year, on our final hike to the waterfall, I had a student say, “Mrs. Kulak, I used to hate nature, but now I love it!” and I thought, my job here is done! The kids always mention Wonder Walks as one of their favourite parts of kindergarten, and it was so exciting to have our whole school outside together last year. I also loved the day we explored puddles and spent the afternoon running snow-pants through the dryer at our school. Watching the kids use natural items to create small worlds for their animal toys in the forest is pretty special, too. And I love the hive of children buzzing up and down the “big hill” among the towering trees. So exciting to see them enjoying the beautiful natural setting of our school.


Nice! What have been some of the trickiest challenges you’ve faced, and how did you move through them? 

What first comes to mind is the development of recess “fight clubs” when we first started to allow Rough & Tumble Play – yikes! That’s when we knew we needed to do some more teaching around this topic and we started to have the pre-recess assemblies. Now we can go up to wrestling students and check in – “Is everyone still having fun?” We also shared the information about the new recess guidelines with families, so they could understand the rationale and help to guide their children.

On the more day-to-day issues, making sure students are dressed appropriately for the weather is important. So I communicate with parents early and often that we spend lots of time outside. In our class we talk about how we are explorers and we need to dress well for our adventures (but I also have a closet of extra snow pants from parent donations and second hand stores). We’ve also been able to do one permission form for the year to allow students to go down the forest path. Then, with a few weeks’ notice, we just need to organize a few parent volunteers to join us.

How have you gotten any hesitant or fearful folks on board?

Knowing the research behind why outdoor play and risky-play is so important and beneficial for children can help to convince people. ParticipACTION’s Position Statement on Active Outdoor Play has lots of supportive statistics and Frances Carlson’s article Rough & Tumble Play 101 gives some great food for thought as well. Talking them through the process and asking them to observe with you, rather than jumping in right away, can help them to feel more comfortable with the concept.

On one of my first Wonder Walks to the forested park, a group of my kindergarten students started climbing around on the steep hill. The dad that was standing there asked me if I felt ok about this, and I replied, “Yep, I think so.  How about you?” and he said, “Oh, I don’t feel good about any of this.” I think trying to keep track of 6 adventuresome kindergarten students was a lot for him, but I said, “Let’s just watch.”  So we witnessed these kids clamber up the steep hill and then get to the top, and I was thinking…now what, how will they get down?  Well, sure enough, they naturally started to traverse down at an angle, some found a way that had fewer bushes, and others went down on their bums and used their hands to scoot down.  It was awesome!  So the dad and I just watched and commented on how great it was to let them figure it out, find their own boundaries and explore a bit.  The ones who felt capable went all the way to the top, and some up and down multiple times.  Those who struggle more with their gross motor skills naturally stayed closer to the bottom, but still pushed their own limits by climbing up a bit.  All the kids were thrilled, even those who went up just a little ways. “Mrs. Kulak, I climbed a mountain!!”, “Mrs. Kulak!! I climbed up the hill!!”  Using the experience as a journaling prompt resulted in their strongest journal entries. They were buzzing with excitement and all had something to draw about.

Documentation is also important to me, and this is another way in which information helps hesitant or concerned parents, for example, see the value in our outdoor adventures. I share a weekly “Wonder Walk Talk” email with parents outlining and sharing lots of pictures of what we did outside. I sometimes include a list of curricular links for parents, especially at the start (i.e. the trees have different sized branches and we compared their length to our hands and arms (Early Numeracy – measurement)) to illustrate that even when kids are “just playing” they are developing gross motor skills, utilizing language and communication, noticing cause and effect relationships – the list goes on!


Wow. We talk a lot about “meeting people where they’re at” – hearing their concerns without judgment, and inviting them with research, information, and compassion, to watch and see what might be possible when we get out of the way of kids a bit. You are really putting that into practice! What advice would you pass along to folks hoping to nurture a school or community culture that supports outdoor and risky play? 

Pick a time to go outside and commit to it, otherwise you’ll be tempted to default back to your comfort zone inside your classroom. Push yourself to be ok with the unknown and trust your students – give them the space to practice and develop their skills. Start small – spend an hour exploring outside, allow the kids to climb that hill, and build from there! Student excitement and engagement will be your best advertisement for more outdoor play!


What hopes do you have for your class or your school in terms of outdoor and risky play?

We have really exciting plans to build an outdoor classroom for our school with beautiful spaces for a variety of outdoor play and learning. I know we’ll continue to build on our outdoor play days, and I plan to visit some new zones along the forest path this year! We are also booking a risky play workshop through the Child & Nature Alliance for school staff this spring and I plan to take the Forest School Practitioner Course in the fall.

Kara, thank you so much!

Join the discussion 3 Comments

  • Hetal Patel says:

    Thank you Petra for finding Kara and Kara thank you for sharing your experience as kindergarten teacher this helps me understand forest schools practice better through kindergarten lenses. Thank you your inspiration ?

  • Jody Peebles says:

    As a parent of now two children who have been fortunate to be in Kara’s kindergarten class, I couldn’t be any more grateful. The confidence that my daughters developed through this class and their outside learning is priceless. We are an active outdoors family, so my husband and I appreciated the extra encouragement from another adult that nature is the place to be!! As a family we often go on our own wonder walks…and our girls are more eager and willing to say yes to our adventure suggestions and often come to us with their own ideas for outside adventures. Last summer my 7 year old insisted on doing a hike in Waterton that is considered difficult and that I did not think she was ready for. But we just went with it and planned a special date for it. And guess what?! She did the entire hike under her own power and did it faster and stronger than some of the adults!! We were blown away!!! So needless to say, we love this program at HAS and hope it continues to get the support it deserves!!

  • csdesiles says:

    Petra Eperjesi, thanks! And thanks for sharing your great posts every week!

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