Playing and learning experientially is the bedrock for children’s growth and development from a holistic perspective (Gray, 2018b; Padial-Ruz et al., 2021; Sahlberg & Doyle, 2019). Despite the challenges of the 21st century, such as societal pushback and helicopter parenting (Gill, 2014), we found that parents and caregivers believe that the benefits of allowing children to play outweigh any associated risks. We contest that parents and caregivers are often the gatekeepers to an appetite for and tolerance to risk (Akdemir et al., 2023; Allin et al., 2014; Brussoni et al., 2018). Evidence-based research repeatedly shows children’s free and unstructured play supports creativity, experimentation (Sahlberg & Doyle, 2019), risk taking, and executive functioning (Sandseter et al., 2021). Similarly, the literature illustrates unstructured and unsupervised nature play positively impacts children’s health and development (Dankiw et al., 2020).

The current study was intended to unpack the views of parents and caregivers who engaged with a new high-risk nature play park. A perhaps unanticipated finding was the importance that parents and caregivers gave to the role of the park in supporting and cultivating children’s risky play opportunities. Parents and caregivers were gatekeepers of the children’s opportunities to engage with risk by bringing them to the park and encouraging self-directed play. In addition, the park design was instrumental in supporting and cultivating children’s risky play. Similarly to Naik et al. (2019), we found that the risk appetite of adults can be seen as an upstream determinant of their child’s opportunity for risky play.

The key purpose of this paper, therefore, is to elucidate the view of parents and caregivers by bringing to the forefront their perspectives of the perceived benefits for children playing in Boongaree Nature Play Park (BNPP). The views presented in this research provide an alternative narrative to contemporary discourses around risk-adverse parenting. Additionally, the adult insights may inform future directions around children’s play spaces. Parent and caregiver perspectives offer valuable insights into the benefits and affordances of nature play parks.

Study Context

Situated in the rural township of Berry (in Shoalhaven, which is in the South Coast region of New South Wales), BNPP represents an innovative nature play park. Newly opened in January 2022, the space is unlike prefabricated suburban play parks. The nature park was initially conceived in 2015 and was codesigned by a multistakeholder approach within the Berry community. Key stakeholders included park designers, the local Rotary Club, retired educators, the Local Aboriginal Land Council, parents, school children, and local council members. Described as a journey of passion, commitment, and perseverance, the process took 7 years to come to fruition (Shoalhaven City Council, n.d.). The plan involved seven stages, with Stage 1 being the official launch of BNPP in January 2022, which became the site for this study (see Figs. 1 and 2).

Fig. 1
figure 1

One of the entry points to Boongaree Nature Play Park (photo credit T. Gray)

Fig. 2
figure 2

The natural surrounds of Boongaree Nature Play Park (photo credit T. Gray)

Biophilic Park Design: Letting Nature In

The play park was inspired by nature-infused learning and utilised natural materials and biophilic design principles (Kellert, 2005; Kellert et al., 1993). Extensively researched and documented, “biophilia” refers to the positive effects of nature, especially plants, upon human health and wellbeing (T. Gray & Birrell, 2014). For centuries, ancestorial wisdom has outlined the beneficial aspects of human–nature contact that, according to Gray and Birrell (2014), includes “stress reduction, healing, attention restoration, and the development of perceptual and expressive skills, as well as cognitive, imaginative and social capacity” (p. 12204). Based on this premise, a groundswell of nature-infused elements feature in contemporary educational and play settings. As shown in Figs. 3, 4, and 5, these include water, stone, timber, sand, and greenery, to name just a few.

Fig. 3
figure 3

Natural design elements encouraging interaction with nature, walking on uneven surfaces and as gathering spaces for imaginative play/sitting spots (photo credit T. Gray)

Fig. 4
figure 4

Spaces designed for play with natural elements, e.g., sand and wood (photo credit T. Gray)

Fig. 5
figure 5

Fixed equipment in earthy tones and surrounded by natural elements (photo credit T. Gray)

Selected elements of the Nature Play Park illustrate specific examples of biophilic and nature-infused components.

Outdoor Play and Learning

Outdoor education and/or play is defined as learning in, through, and with nature (Gray, 2018a, 2022). However, contrary to the belief that Australians are a nature-loving outdoor nation, research suggests children have been spending less time outdoors (Dowdell et al., 2011; Gray, 2018a, b; Little & Wyver, 2008). This trend is universal in application, especially in developed countries where changes have been witnessed in the way children engage in active or sedentary leisure activities during their formative years of growth and development (Beyer et al., 2015; Brussoni et al., 2018; Sahlberg & Doyle, 2019). Children are increasingly becoming estranged from the natural world and have become dissociated with behaviours involving risky play (Gray, 2018a, b, 2019, 2022; Henebery, 2023; Kahn & Kellert, 2002; Louv, 2010; Mygind et al., 2019, 2021; Sandseter, 2010).

There is a decline in opportunities offered by parents and caregivers for children to engage in high-risk environments. This has given rise to the term “helicopter parenting” (Gill, 2014; Gray, 2013, 2020, 2022). Campanini (2020) suggests this trend may also be due to children’s risk-adverse, time-poor, and sedentary lifestyles. Now, more than ever, there is a need to explore the benefits of play, especially outdoors, in supporting children’s skills, wellbeing, and development (Dowdell et al., 2011; Goldfeld et al., 2022).

Natural high-risk outdoor spaces, such as BNPP, offer myriad educational, physical, and sociological benefits (see Ansari et al., 2015; Dowdell et al., 2011; Herrington & Brussoni, 2015; Kuo et al., 2019; Sandseter et al., 2021). In the same way, both McCurdy et al. (2010) and Williams (2022) posited that outdoor play in nature is a cost-effective remedy to augment physical and mental health. Nature-rich experiences can enhance a child’s creativity; improve cognitive functioning and psychosocial wellbeing; cultivate risk taking and self-reliance, exploration, and experimentation; and promote physical fitness and active engagement (Gray, 2018b, De Silva, 2023; Herrington & Studtmann, 98; Mygind et al., 2021; Sahlberg & Doyle, 2019; Sando et al., 2021).

Childhood challenges and risk-taking behaviours are well documented as being both advantageous and desirable for holistic health (Gill, 2014; Gray, 2020; T. Henebery, 2023; Sandseter et al., 2021). Indeed, they are shown to enhance a child’s maturational process and self-regulation skills (Dickson et al., 2008; Fyfe-Johnson et al., 2021; Liddle, 1998; Mygind et al., 2019; Pellegrini & Smith, 1998). Moreover, Mygind et al. (2021) revealed that hands-on contact with nature supports sociocognitive and physical development through engagement with risky play. In short, nature + play is a “superfood” for children (Gray, 2020, 2022), and the outdoors is a wonderland of endless opportunities for children to learn, take risks, and play.

What is Risk?

Risk and risk taking is one of the most widely studied topics in human developmental science. Universally, risk can be defined as engaging in a behaviour or activity with an uncertain physical, socioemotional, or financial outcome (Bell, 2017; Dickson & Gray, 2012). Risk is omnipresent in our lives and encountered daily (Dickson et al., 2008). Examples include driving a car, crossing a street, buying a house at auction, climbing a stepladder, and investing in the stock market. Regrettably, the consequence of risk taking in outdoor adventurous activities may include a minor or major accident, mishap, injury, or even death (Brymer & Gray, 2010; Priest & Gass, 2018). However, risk and uncertainty are inextricably tied and form part of the rich tapestry of outdoor experiential learning.

How Much Risk is Too Much Risk?

We cannot eliminate risk from our everyday lives, but we can become “risk technicians” (T. Gray, 2022). In educational terms, “experience is the best teacher”, and this notion underpins part of the experiential learning cycle (Kolb, 1984, 2014; Yannier et al., 2021). Partaking in risky play and activities in natural settings inherently contain elements of uncertainty, unknown outcomes, and consequences for actions or inactions. Adversity and experimentation are potent vehicles for building resilience, grit, and tenacity (Gray 2019; Mann et al., 2022).

A robust debate about risk taking within playgrounds was recently sparked following injuries that stemmed from children’s engagement with BNPP and similiar playgrounds (see Lester, 2023). Among the fanfare of the launch of BNPP, some misadventures and injuries occurred. This generated attention, fuelling conversations surrounding safety and the benefits of risk taking within playgrounds (Drewitt-Smith & James, 2022). There were polarised discourses between advocates who believed the affordances outweighed any risks within these play environments and those who did not agree.

Risky Play

More than three decades ago, Liddle (1998) remarked that risk and experience were instrumental in lifelong learning. He espoused that risk is the antidote for learning and childhood education and that “risk plays about as pivotal role in experiential education as oxygen does to sustaining the human body” (p. 61). Enriching a child’s risk literacy levels through failure, adversity, and hardship has the capacity to enhance self-esteem, cultivate an adventurous spirit, build resilience and tenacity, and, most importantly, is critical for lifelong learning (Gill, 2014; Gray, 2013). For more than a decade, the advantages of risk taking in outdoor spaces have been amassing within the literature (Gill, 2014; Gray, 20132018a2020; Knight, 2009; Sandseter, 2010). The benefits of risk have been sourced from an eclectic range of outdoor experiences and fields, sharing myriad commonalities as a form of outdoor pedagogy.

Risky play has been defined as “thrilling and exciting forms of physical play that involves uncertainty and a risk of physical injury” (Sandseter, 2010, p. 22). Children, adolescents, and even adults are innately drawn to risk-taking experiences in the outdoors, especially activities that elicit unbridled and unrestrained experiences in nature (Brymer & Gray, 2010). Researchers have found that these experiences support children in skill building and developing decision-making, problem-solving, creativity, self-esteem, and resilience (Brussoni et al., 2015; Christensen & Mikkelsen, 2008; Gill, 2007; Greenfield, 2004; Lavrysen et al., 2015; Little & Wyver, 2008; Sando, 2019; Sando et al., 2021; Sandseter, 2010; Sandseter & Kennair, 2). Likewise, the inherent value of participant-centred experiential learning has long been recognised over multiple decades (Dickson et al., 2008; Dowdell et al., 2011; Gill, 2014; Gray, 2020; Joplin, 1981; Pellegrini & Smith, 1998).

Balancing Risk and Adventure

There are many reasons children engage in risky play. Sandseter et al. (2021) noted that it is primarily to experience the thrill, achievement, and pride in mastering new and challenging tasks. The elements of ambiguity and uncertainty in risky situations make such play appealing, engaging, and enticing for children (Sutton-Smith, 1997). However, children’s risky play experiences can cause anxiety for parents and caregivers. Research has shown that parental fears, attitudes about social dangers, and perceptions of the value of free play and outdoor autonomy exert a strong influence on a parent’s appetite for risk (Brussoni et al., 2018). Along the same train of thought, Valentine and McKendrick (1997) posited “the most significant influence on children's access to independent play is not the level of public provision of play facilities but parental anxieties about children's safety and the changing nature of childhood” (p. 219). Adults can perceive risky play as dangerous and consequently demonstrate less tolerance for what they see as risk-taking behaviour (Little, 2010).

These apprehensions stem from concerns about children’s safety and reducing the possibility of injury (Little, 2010; McFarland & Laird, 2018; Sandseter, 2010). Furthermore, parents who demonstrate a low-risk appetite—that is, a low tolerance to their children being exposed to risk and little unstructured outdoor play time—has led to what has been termed the “bubble-wrapped” generation (Brussoni et al., 2018; Gray, 2022; Malone, 2007). Parents’ appetite for and tolerance of children’s risk-taking influences children’s opportunities for outdoor risky play.


We sought ethical approval from the Western Sydney University Human Ethics Research Committee, and approval to conduct this research was received (approval number H14964). Our study was designed to ensure we were better able to understand what parents and caregivers perceived were the benefits and challenges of this high-risk natural park. The following main research question guided the study: “What are the perceptions and insights of parents and caregivers towards the benefits and challenges of the Boongaree Nature Play Park?”

Data were collected using mixed-methods research (MMR) to inform the experiences of parents and caregivers and to triangulate the inferences drawn from either data set, thus strengthening the research (Bergman, 2008; Crotty, 1998). The MMR design incorporated a two-phased approach. The first wave of data was collected via convenience sampling from a survey. The researchers were onsite at the park during multiple visits in June 2023 and invited adult participants to access an inbuilt survey using a QR code. All participants were consenting adults. The survey was anonymous, and there was no potential for identifiable information to be collected within the survey itself. Following a consent question, the survey asked the parents and caregivers the following questions:

  • What is your postcode?

  • What is the role you are taking on when attending the park today? (e.g., parent, grandparent, carer)

  • Who are you here with? (e.g., child, grandchild, niece, nephew, friend, etc.)

  • How many times have you visited this play space?

  • When you visit the play space, approximately how long do you spend here?

  • What do you see as the best features of this play space?

  • Is there anything at the play space that you would change?

  • What activities in this play space captivate your child’s attention and/or interest?

  • How is this play space different to other parks/play spaces that you might visit?

  • What do you see as the key benefits of your child engaging in this play space?

  • What THREE words best describe the way your child engages with this play space?

  • Is there anything else that you would like to say about this play space?

The final question asked participants if they would like to partake in Phase 2 of our study, a closed Facebook group for additional qualitative data. This Facebook group was titled “Boongaree Nature Play Park Berry” and used qualitative responses to further unpack parents’ and caregivers’ attitudes towards children’s play behaviours around engagement with the park. As identified by Franz et al. (2019), Facebook is a site from which data can be captured and generated for research purposes. Within the closed Facebook group, the researchers took on an “active analysis” position, whereby they actively participated in the research by posting set research questions as provocations and then took on the role of group moderator of conversations (Franz et al., 2019). The Facebook group was designed as a tangible means to generate further discussions and curate content through a series of six targeted questions. It was used as an extension of the survey and thus delved deeper into the perceptions of and insights into nature play and the contrast of BNPP to other mainstream parks. There were also opportunities in the Facebook group for robust debates to emerge, challenging perceptions of risks for children within the play park. These dual methods of data collection allowed the researchers to deep dive into parents’ and caregivers’ perceived benefits and challenges associated with their experiences at BNPP.

Data from both approaches were analysed using comparative and descriptive content analysis along with thematic mapping. A total of 302 parents and caregivers completed the survey, and of these, 56 then joined the Facebook group.


We commence this section by presenting survey data (N = 302) around the role of the adult with the child and then the frequency of playground visitation patterns. We then unpack nine themes that underpin what parents and caregivers perceived as the ways the high-risk nature park supported children’s growth and development. Collectively, these perspectives offer valuable insights into the benefits and affordances of high-risk nature play parks.

Visitation Patterns

Unsurprisingly, it was parents who mostly accompanied children to the park, with nearly 85% of adults identifying as the children’s parent (see Table 1). This was followed by grandparents at just over 10% and, less frequently, carers.

Table 1 Adults in attendance at BNPP

The data also established the visitation trend that highlighted visitors to the park were predominantly repeat users. The frequency of visitations is outlined in Table 2, and Fig. 6 reveals that the majority visited the park five to 10 times (n = 79, 26.3%), followed by more than 10 times (n = 62, 20.5%), and closely followed by first-time users (n = 56, 18.5%). Collectively, 67.5% indicated they had returned three or more times to the park. These statistics uncover the high approval rating of the park.

Table 2 Frequency of visits to the park
Fig. 6
figure 6

Frequency of park visitations

Frequency/ Survey Plots

Benefits of BNPP

The repeated visits and qualitative data demonstrated parents’ support of children engaging in this high-risk nature park. Comments centred on the importance of cultivating wellness and creativity; improving problem-solving skills, executive functioning, self-regulation, and resilience; and cultivating self-concepts. These ideas resonate with the related literature outlined above that presents the affordances and constraints of nature and how it contributes positively to a suite of mindsets, dispositions, attributes, behaviours, and skills. Although there were a small number of challenges raised by parents and caregivers, most advocated for BNPP as a platform for children’s growth and development.

Nine emergent themes from the qualitative data showed the park supported children’s opportunities to (1) engage with an innovative nature play park (2) be challenged and solve problems, (3) connect to the outdoors, (4) have fun and enjoyment, (5) direct their own play, (6) be physically active, (7) be creative and curious, (8) demonstrate confidence and independence, and (9) build social capacity. This study concluded that parents and caregivers are key advocates for initiating and sustaining risky nature play for their child.

Engage with an innovative nature play park

Parents and caregivers articulated a clear approval of the various ways that children engaged with the nature play space. A key affordance offered was the variability of equipment and multiple opportunities for children to engage within this bespoke play space. The following insight demonstrated this phenomenon: “I see this park as a massive drawcard having so many exciting different pieces of equipment in a lovely natural environment” (Survey Response, Participant 222).

The widespread variety was seen to facilitate engaging and challenging play for children of different ages and abilities. Comments also revealed that this observation starkly contrasted with their experiences in other traditional suburban play spaces that can be labelled as “cookie cutter” park design.

Lots of choices and new equipment that is different from other parks. (Survey Response, Participant 131)

Wonderfully designed! More parks should be designed like this! It allows kids to be kids—take risks, have fun, learn new skills, and build upon skills. (Survey Response, Participant 74)

Be challenged and solve problems

Our data demonstrated that parents and caregivers strongly valued the opportunity for children to be challenged and solve problems. It became evident that parents were backing off and allowing their children to intuit their own risk. The adults used language to describe the positive qualities the park offered children as they navigated challenge in terms including “grit and determination” and “perseverance”. Adults indicated the park cultivated their ability to assess risk and become risk technicians. Correspondingly, a child’s resilience was bolstered through opportunities to navigate challenging experiences. Comments from both the survey and Facebook data established that adults valued challenging play:

The look on children’s faces as they reach the top of climbing ropes and start walking across the bridges is fabulous—grit and determination, followed by a big deep breath when they make the top, then start to walk at height—some hesitantly needing a hand from a bigger person—but they keep going back and trying to master it. (Survey Response, Participant 296)

Boongaree respects children’s individual ability to assess risk by offering a quality play space for all ages in a natural setting. (Facebook Response)

Arguably, this play space allows children to behave in ways that are unavailable in other parks. This risky play space offers widespread challenges and more metaskills than other prefabricated parks. Within this context, two parents offered these insightful comments that confirmed the value of nexus between challenge and risk:

It gives the children an opportunity to do risk assessment of their actions, which I think is great for their development (most other play spaces are red taped and bubble wrapped to such an extent the children couldn’t hurt themselves even if they tried to). (Survey Response, Participant 242)

The opportunity to make their own decisions about the risk they want to take how high or how fast they will go. This is paramount in the risk adverse society we now live in. (Survey Response, Participant 119)

In addition, the park invites children to solve problems and think critically. Parents and caregivers noted that these opportunities could be viewed as declining in other contexts. Responses highlighted that the adults valued these distinctive opportunities to negotiate problems:

I believe it provides children a chance to problem solve, and manage risks in a way which is not offered at schools or indoors anymore. (Survey Response, Participant 297)

Testing their own ability and strengths, problem solving and assessing risk through play. (Survey Response, Participant 118)

BNPP provides the space to be challenged and solve problems, and therefore be risk technicians. Experimenting and exploring self-limits through risk taking within the park provides a platform for children’s life skills development.

Connect to the outdoors

Overwhelmingly, parents and caregivers valued the opportunity for children to be in the outdoors. What was perhaps unexpected is that they also recognised this connection extended to themselves within the outdoor space, connecting with each other and others from the broader community. When probed further about the key benefits of engaging in this play space, parents and caregivers repeatedly offered improving social connections as common responses:

[It is a] community gathering space. (Survey Response, Participant 27)

Socialisation, community connection. (Survey Response, Participant 29)

Similarly, participants recognised that the outdoor park offered contemporary play opportunities for children to unplug from technology and digital screens. This is evidenced in the following remarks:

The space is inviting and engaging so holds the children’s attention for much longer than those parks that offer no risk. Therefore, it entices them to play outdoors longer which is also vital when screens demand so much attention. (Survey Response, Participant 119)

The natural space, infused with risky play elements, provided many opportunities for children to test their self-imposed limitations and strengths.

Have fun and enjoyment

The other themes demonstrate parents and caregivers perceived benefits of the park through the lens of supporting children’s health and development. However, the most common theme espoused by parents and caregivers was the theme of fun. Responses highlighted the interwoven nature of fun and enjoyment in child wellbeing, growth, and development:

Able to use imagination and enjoy the time. (Survey Response, Participant 257)

Fun, physical literacy, solidify friendships, life skills. (Survey Response, Participant 16)

The impact of children having fun supported more frequent visits and longer stays at the park:

Them challenging themselves and being active, each time we have visited we can’t spend less than 2 hours there as they are having so much fun. (Survey Response, Participant 184)

Many different things to do. They were there 4 hours and enjoyed every moment. (Survey Response, Participant 75)

Most parks don’t wear my kids out before they get lose interest, but Boongaree leaves them exhausted and wanting to stay. (Facebook Response)

Unquestionably, fun and enjoyment was deemed a precursor to the other themes that supported children’s wellbeing and growth.

Direct their own play

Parents and caregivers valued the myriad opportunities for children to direct their own play. In particular, they noted children were free to make their own decisions in an open space with unlimited potential. One participant summarised this in the following way:

Freedom to play in any way they feel comfortable. They aren’t restricted by limited play spaces or boring activities. We could go to this park every weekend and my children would still have a ball and each time would find something that challenges them but also thrills them. (Survey Response, Participant 200)

The adults associated this level of freedom with child-led decision-making that fuelled children’s inner imagination. In turn, children challenged themselves with an array of opportunities to experiment, discover, have adventures, make decisions, and self-direct their choices.

Be physically active

A key theme evident throughout the data was the perceived benefit of a play space that supported children to be physically active. At times, this was framed from the perspective of “burning energy” as well as an opportunity for children to “exercise” freely. Other caregivers valued the opportunity for children to develop “gross motor skills”, “physical literacy”, “balance”, “coordination”, and overall health. This response focused on physical activity: “Using their bodies, building muscle tone, essentially exercising through play” (Survey Response, Participant 70).

Adults recognised that the park enhanced children’s mental wellbeing and allowed them to fully embrace the scope of the park: “Exercising physically and mentally, they really do get deeply engaged when they are there, it’s hard to keep up!” (Survey Response, Participant 88).

Be creative and curious

The bespoke nature play space offers definitive benefits for children to activate their imaginations and be creative and curious. The variedness of material, openness of the park design, and natural elements within the play space facilitated these qualities:

They use their imaginations, make up little games, get really into role play. (Survey Response, Participant 86)

Kids can grow with the park (something for all ages), kids can get messy and really interact with the space, encourages curiosity and imagination. (Survey Response, Participant 76)

The unique and novel characteristics embedded within the park design include creative spaces that incorporate natural equipment and materials. These ignite children’s imagination and support creativity:

The incorporation of natural structures (logs/creeks) and encouragement of creative play (sand and water). (Survey Response, Participant 132)

The creative spaces such as the sand/water area and bike track let our children imagine they are in a different world. (Survey Response, Participant 185)

Demonstrate confidence and independence

Parents and caregivers remarked how the park supported children’s confidence building. Interestingly, building confidence was often associated with being able to take risks and overcome challenges:

Our children have always been encouraged to take part in bushwalking, canoeing, rock climbing and ice skating. Therefore, they have built up a lot of confidence and resilience through experiences with nature. I see the benefits of the Boongaree Nature Play Park in Berry as an opportunity to build self-awareness, develop confidence, overcome obstacles, and enrich the experience of positive physical challenges. (Survey Response, Participant 302)

Building on confidence to conquer their fears. (Survey Response, Participant 147)

There was a direct correlation between a growth in children’s confidence and the development of their independence. A participant remarked, “Sense of autonomy to explore and take on challenges” (Survey Response, Participant 64).

Build social capacity

Parents and caregivers articulated numerous benefits surrounding the development of social skills. Specifically, they expressed more nuanced elements of socialisation, including the opportunity to develop new friendships, negotiate roles, sort out differences, have patience, take turns, help others, work in teams, and mix with children of different ages and cultural backgrounds. It was also noted the development of these social skills usually occurred without the presence of adults: “They have to work things out as they interact. They interact with other kids they have never met before, and they negotiate roles between them without adults laying down rules and sorting out differences” (Survey Response, Participant 23).

The following responses provide examples of the value regarding the development of children’s social skills:

They interact with other children and several times have helped other children navigate difficult obstacles which connects children socially and emotionally. (Survey Response, Participant 149)

Boongaree has been thoughtfully designed to encourage co-operative play (e.g., the water pump sand pit, merry go round, spinning ropes near the flying fox). There is also guaranteed to be many kids to play with no matter what time or day you go there. (Facebook Response)

The last question asked, “What THREE words best describe the way your child engages with this play space?” The key emergent themes are compiled in Fig. 7, which also adds gravitas to the cohort’s perceptions of the nature play space. The size of the font is directly proportional to the number of times the word was articulated.

Fig. 7
figure 7

Key themes from the three-word summary of the nature play space


Significant media attention following several injures sustained after the opening of BNPP sparked conversations around the safety of playgrounds (Drewitt-Smith & James, 2022). A handful of studies have previously investigated risky play through the eyes of parents and caregivers (e.g., Allin et al., 2014; Carver et al., 2010; StGeorge et al., 2015). The lack of high-risk outdoor spaces, fear of litigation, overscheduling of parents’ and children’s lives, and the synthetic, prefabricated atmosphere of most play yards have largely contributed to the loss of children’s contact with nature (Rivkin, 1990). As such, we identified a gap in the related literature for further study. While the results of our study are both rich and diverse, the engagement focused on the positive responses to risk-taking behaviours in playgrounds. We conclusively found that the importance of adults’ risk appetite cannot be underestimated as a social determinant for children’s opportunity to engage in risky play.

Parent and Caregivers: Key Determinants of Children’s Opportunities for Risk

Similar to other studies, we found parents and caregivers are significant stakeholders in determining childhood play opportunities and experiences (Akdemir, et al., 2023; Lewis et al., 2004). Little and Wyver (2008) speculated that “the ultimate aim for parents, teachers and other play providers should be to provide positive outdoor play environments where the risks of serious injury are reduced, but creativity, challenge and excitement are maintained” (p. 39). Overwhelmingly, our findings demonstrate that parents and caregivers support the opportunity for children to be challenged and engage in risky play at BNPP. Our findings reveal that they value the opportunity for children to assess risk, look for ways to overcome challenges, and navigate obstacles that the park provides.

We were particularly interested in the myriad holistic benefits for their children identified by parents and caregivers. They clearly recognised the benefits of risk taking, especially, in terms of how it contributes positively to their children’s skill development, physical wellbeing, and social interaction. The outdoor experience was seen as an opportunity for their children to move away from technology and engage in embodied activity. Correspondingly, BNPP was seen as an inviting play space infused with myriad opportunities to take risks. In turn, this increases the duration of time the children engage with nature in the outdoor play space.

BNPP and the Marked Difference to Other Parks

Parents and caregivers acknowledged that BNPP supports children to do this in ways that are not offered in other traditional park play spaces. In their study on the relationship between play value and play space design, Woolley and Lowe (2013) espoused that traditional, cast-iron-infused playgrounds focus primarily on facilitation of physical activity, with less emphasis on exploration and imagination. They described such traditional playgrounds as anchored and nonresponsive to children, with the design driven by factors such as “parental fear” (p. 56). In the context of a more contemporary play space design, this research provides an alternative view to the perceived notion of parental fear and instead demonstrates that parents and caregivers perceive value in a play space with variety, challenge, and excitement and indeed a richness of language and knowledge regarding the multitude of benefits from interacting in such space. Parents repetitively stated that the variety and age appropriateness of the equipment enabled their children to find comfort, confidence, and challenges to match their skill levels. It is not that other parks do not afford this; they clearly do—however, the point of difference of BNPP is the sheer size and number of play opportunities. The equipment was cleverly chosen to appeal to a variety of play styles and ages, a point that was reflected throughout the parents’ perceptions of the park.

Louv (2010) identified the phenomenon of “nature deficit disorder” as a phrase (rather than a formal diagnosis) to highlight and discuss the impacts of a detachment from nature for children. In his work, Louv noted that discussing the consequences of nature deficit disorder allows us to bring to the surface the positive associated benefits of a connection to nature for children. Louv called for a need to educate parents about the positive associated benefits of nature play.

While it is noted that some parents and carers who visit this park do so because of an existing interest and commitment to outdoor play, the depth and breadth of language, knowledge, and devotion to this play space demonstrate that there is a population of parents and caregivers who have already been inspired to “choose a different path, one that leads to a nature-child reunion” (Louv, 2010, p. 33). The natural elements of BNPP surround the equipment elements, with trees enclosing the area, sand and water play prominent, and a natural aesthetic throughout. While the fixed equipment is human made, it utilises natural elements and a neutral colour scheme. Parents repeatedly commented on the natural elements in the park and how they contributed to a heighted connection to place. When children are comfortable in a place, they will take more risks and engage in deeper levels of play, including being curious and engaging in problem-solving activities.

In addition, a key theme evident throughout the data was the perceived benefit of the play space allowing children to be physically active in nature. This was framed from the perspective of “burning energy” as well as an opportunity for children to “exercise” freely. Other caregivers valued the opportunity for children to develop “gross motor skills”, “physical literacy”, “balance”, and “coordination”. This finding concurs with other similar studies such as that by Gray et al. (2015) who discovered that natural outdoor space offers children more freedom to be physically active.

The freedom associated with child-directed play was another common parent and caregiver comment. Many remarked on the expansive size of the park in physical terms. The wide variety enabled children to choose where they wanted to play, what they wanted to play with, and even who they would play with. The option for choice empowered children with leadership skills and confidence to make their own choices. It is proposed that when children use these skills, they also engage in more challenging activities. Children can choose to use the lower slide aligned to their comfort level or challenge themselves to walk up rope ladders to the higher slides. The park is designed to give children options that are developmentally appropriate to their physical literacy skills and confidence.

Throughout the surveys and social media comments, it was clear people were aware of recent accidents at BNPP. However, knowledge of these incidents was not a deterrent for visiting the park. Parents’ comments consistently mentioned the risks the park presented as an opportunity of growth for their children. While there were some that thought the risk too high, these were an exceptionally small minority and were in relation to the perceived riskiest areas of the park. While the slides, spinning wheels, and climbing elements are the perceived risky elements of the park, there is risk layered into all elements. Developing confidence to walk over uneven surfaces begins on the ground, then low balance logs, to higher logs before embarking on the rope climbs. For other children, sensory risk taking might be their challenge—playing in the sand, spinning the water wheels, or moving the barriers in the water play channels. Whether or not parents realise the layered and sequential challenges in the park, they exist, and the park has been designed for a sequence of skill developments applicable to multiple learning styles. Due to a combination of factors—size, variety, challenge, inclusivity, natural aesthetic appeal, and age appropriateness—BNPP encourages repeat visits and time spent outdoors away from digital devices.

Limitations of the Study

All studies have limitations, and it is important for researchers to recognise and acknowledge them. The purpose of this study was to explore parent and caregiver views about BNPP. Due to the scope of this research, a deliberate decision was made to exclude the perspectives of children from this project. It is crucial, however, to recognise and acknowledge the significant role that children can play in both the design and evaluation of playgrounds, especially those seen as high risk such as at Boongaree. Including children’s views would be a valuable extension of this research.

This study was confined to accessing the views of adults at the park through an inbuilt survey using a QR code linked to technical devices, and then participants self-nominated to join a dedicated Facebook group. While researchers onsite provided the option for participants without technical devices to respond to the survey using alternative means, this approach limited opportunities to hear the voices of those individuals. Additionally, the lack of technical ability or knowledge could have been a barrier for some participants to engage in the Facebook group discussions. Furthermore, a few participants did not provide consent or agree to adhere to the Facebook group rules, leading to their exclusion from making or responding to posts. Researchers sought to contact these participants via Facebook Messenger to remedy this, but few responded.

Importance of Parents’ and Caregivers’ Voices in Future Designs

Insights from this paper are useful to inform future directions around the design and use of children’s play spaces. Further, the views presented in this research offer an alternative narrative to contemporary discourses around risk-adverse parenting. Considering the pandemic, gaps are noted within children’s engagement in physical play and adult perceptions in their undertaking, therefore creating an opportunity to bridge the gaps in knowledge and improve practice within the domain of risky play.

The data highlighted the key elements and benefits of a nature park such as BNPP. The importance of a well-considered design alongside a multistakeholder approach needs to be considered that could include (a) children and youth codesigning the play space, (b) parent and caregiver perspectives, and (c) urban planners listening to these voices in the planning of the park’s design. Collectively, these perspectives offer valuable insights into the benefits and affordances of nature play parks.


Media coverage of childhood injuries raised safety concerns about a newly built nature play park and provided the impetus for this research (Drewitt-Smith & James, 2022). Opportunities emerged to explore parent and caregiver perceptions of the park and pave a way to better understand the interplay of risk tolerance and risk appetite. The MMR study with N = 302 participants was guided by the main question: “What are the perceptions and insights of parents and caregivers towards the benefits and challenges of Boongaree Nature Play Park?” This study concluded that parents and caregivers are key advocates for initiating and sustaining risky nature play for their child. Nine themes emerged from the data that conclusively showed the nature park supported children’s opportunities to (1) engage with innovative park design, (2) be risk takers and problem-solvers, (3) connect to the outdoors, (4) have fun, (5) direct their own play, (6) be physically active, (7) be creative and curious, (8) demonstrate confidence and independence, and (9) build social capacity. Collectively, 67.5% of respondents indicated they had returned three or more times to the park. The key findings uncovered that the risk appetite of parents and caregivers cannot be underestimated. These metrics clearly reveal the overwhelming consensus from parents and caregivers of the inherent benefits of risk taking in nature play. Finally, a multistakeholder approach to the park’s codesign, which included children and community consultation during the initial phases of design, amplified BNPP’s high approval rating. In conclusion, our data contribute to the amassing pool of evidence pointing to a positive future for nature play parks as a vehicle for promoting children’s wellbeing and development.