I have very clear memories of the weekends and summer holidays of my childhood, playing in the suburban streets with the neighbourhood children, all mixed ages with the big children responsible for the smaller ones. One time, a few of us were test driving a homemade go-cart down a very steep footpath. I was either very brave or very trusting and only discovered halfway down the hill that the go-cart didn’t have breaks. I had to crash into a tree and roll and I was rescued by a big kid and a local neighbour.
I had friends who grew up in the country and had similar experiences, heading off with mixed age groups of children for the day, exploring the area, climbing trees, swinging across the creek on a rope, helping the little ones to cross the creeks, often falling in.
We were learning to take risks, although that’s not what we or our parents called it. We saw it as having adventures and our parents saw it as entertaining ourselves, managing challenges and being responsible for the little ones. Over time, playgrounds in parks, schools and kindergartens have become sanitised and all alike, ‘plastic fantastic’ with little challenge. In many, swings have been taken away, monkey bars too.
However, more recently, there has been a movement back to supporting and providing safe opportunities for children to experiment with “risky play’. Perhaps encouraged by the forest/nature schools as well as an understanding of the benefits to children’s development in their early years and the impact for further learning.
‘“Risky play” is crucial to a child's development so it's important that teachers and parents don't prevent children from engaging in risky experiences and activities. “Risky play” is also a natural part of children’s play. It is play that involves a risk and provides opportunities for challenging the limits, exploring boundaries testing the limits and learning about injury risk. There are 6 categories of risky play. Some of the key life-skill benefits to be gained from risky play include:
‘Building resilience and persistence; balance and coordination – development of motor skills; awareness of the capabilities and limits of their own bodies; the ability to assess and make judgement without risk; handling of tools safely and with purpose; understanding consequence to action; confidence and independence; resourcefulness; creativity and inventiveness; curiosity and wonder.’ (careforkids.com.au 30/12/2019)
Clearly the flip side of ‘very safe play’ is that children are often clumsy, less fit have less control over their motor skills and planning and less able to make informed risk assessment in general.
Offering opportunities in a safe environment like the early childhood setting enables children to be supported in taking risks and understanding the challenges associated. Obviously, staff are responsible for removing hazards and helping children to understand a hazard (could be a broken or an unstable piece of equipment) as opposed to a challenge (climbing a tree or tall climbing frame, swinging from a rope).
Risky play is more often associated with outdoors but opportunities for supervised risky play also exist indoors, using real tools, like scissors that cut, knives for food prep or cooking; needles and sewing machines to name a few.
There are now lots of more exciting and challenging playground opportunities for children and we can help and encourage them to risk assess. Importantly, letting children do it themselves, lifting them up on to the tree or high climbing frame means they haven’t worked out the planning and co-ordination, mapping themselves and are therefore more likely to get stuck coming down. If they want to get up, they need to work it out.
Keep the idea of risky play in mind during your visits to playgrounds over the holidays.
Director of ELC Kew