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Curious play: Children’s exploration of nature


Curiosity, not risk, may be the motivating factor in children’s playful engagement with nature.

This article presents the concept of “curious play” as a theoretical framework for understanding children’s self-directed play in natural landscapes. “Curious play” is contrasted with the idea of “risky play” — often described as play in which children voluntarily engage in behaviors they consider somewhat dangerous. With risky play, it’s generally understood that the excitement of danger is what draws children into the play situation. Curious play, on the other hand, is based on the premise that what children seek in play is the excitement of discovering what is happening and the extent to which they can experience and master unpredictable situations.

In this primarily theoretical article, the authors used three different sources in developing their concept of curious play: re-analysis of data from an ethnographically inspired study of children playing in nature; a critique of the concept of risky play; and phenomenological and cultural-historical theories of children’s play and play environments.

Observation, field dialogue, and photo elicitation were used in collecting data for the original ethnographically influenced study. Parents of 47 of 60 children attending a family summer camp in Norway agreed to allow their children to participate in the study. While every informant contributed to the study during the observation period, seven boys aged 6–10 were the key informants. Organized camp activities included climbing, hiking, fishing and visiting a mountain goat farm. The children also played freely in natural areas near the camp. The focus of the study was on how children played in what could be called wild nature.

Data collection included observation of and dialogue with the seven key informants all day long throughout the week. It also included photo-elicitation sessions with three of the boys. The boys were encouraged to take pictures throughout the day. The photographs were then used as reference points for dialogue on their play experiences and feelings related to those experiences. A re-analysis of this data allowed the authors of this article to compare the curious play and risky play frameworks for understanding what motivates children’s play in nature. They concluded that risk or uncertainty was not the impetus for these children’s play in nature. They found, instead, that the children’s curious engagement and playful interactions with the environment were motivating factors for the play. This interpretation suggests that as children become engaged in play, they seek and create affordances. It’s as if the natural elements and the children actually play together.

In critiquing the concept of ‘risky play,’ the authors did not question the assumption that children seek risk-related challenges and that natural environments invite forms of play involving risk of physical injury. What they did dispute was the premise that children innately seek physical danger and that risk is essential to children’s growth.

The authors, in comparing curious play with other theories of children’s play and play environments, note that the curious play framework is consistent with exploratory play but adds the idea that children interactively embody their surroundings through play. Affordances, in this context, become not only what the environment has to offer but also what children discover and create about themselves and the world in which they live.


Gurholt, K.P., Sanderud, J.R., (2016). Curious play: Children’s exploration of nature. Journal of Adventure Education and Outdoor Learning


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