Playing & Learning Outdoors
Risky Play – The Balance Between Caution & Hazard
“I am not afraid of storms, for I am learning to sail my ship.”
― Louisa May Alcott
Anyone who has had the privilege of observing young children totally absorbed in outdoor play will surely agree with Voce’s assertion that ‘children playing are as vibrant and alive as humanity gets.’ (Voce, 2016). When children are outdoors, this ‘play drive’, as Fontana (1981) describes it, often takes the form of adventurous play which Spinka, Newberry and Bekoff (2001) believe shares many of the features of the characteristic play enjoyed by of the young of many species. They propose that it functions as ‘training for the unexpected’ and suggest that, at times during this activity, players wilfully place themselves in ‘disadvantageous positions’ in order to savour the ‘novelty and risk’. This, the authors suggest, ‘adds to the intensity and pleasure of the play.’
Figure 4.1 Adventurous play is common to most young mammals
However, Gill (2007) and others note that, like many other aspects of childhood, in modern times this natural type of play is too often ‘undermined by risk aversion.’
Outdoor play in previous generations
As all grandparents, and most parents, will attest, regular opportunities for adventure play outdoors were once an important part of growing up. In fact, as Figure 4.2 illustrates, many of the nursery rhymes our early years children are still taught to chant hark back to real childhood adventures from bygone days of a kind most will rarely, if ever, be allowed to experience:
Figure 4.2 Children’s adventure play and experiences captured in nursery rhymes and folk tales
Though few, if any, parents and childcare professionals actually believe outdoor play is detrimental to a child’s natural development, a significant number feel pressured on all sides to spare no effort to keep children totally safe at all costs. As Cowley and many other authors comment, when adults try to ‘eliminate all the potential risks’ it denies children the chance to ‘learn to keep themselves safe’. (Cowley, 2016). And taking a broader and longer-term view, philosopher Alain de Botton goes on to point out why such well-intentioned preventative action can be disastrous in adulthood:
‘… the most fulfilling human projects appear inseparable from a degree of danger and torment, the sources of our greatest joys lying awkwardly close to those of our greatest challenges. We must strive to correct the belief that fulfilment must come easily or not at all, a belief ruinous in its effects.’ (de Botton, 2015).
Movement underpins development
For early years children, access to unconstrained movement is the key to all aspects of learning and development, and the outdoor landscape is the perfect setting to accommodate and promote this natural process. Figure 4.3 shows the logical sequence of events which occur as a young child continuously practises and perfects both gross- and fine motor skills in order to acquire and control ever more sophisticated actions.
Figure 4.3 The emergence of motor skills
This continuum of learned actions involves many points at which the young child is likely to risk failure, fears and brief setbacks in progressing from one phase to the next. Each child’s experience is unique and, as Solly (2015) explains, he or she will develop their own ‘internal risk assessment process’ to get through individual difficulties. Temporary problems can occur, for example, when toddlers who have learned to walk inside encounter the less predictable gradients and unevenness of outdoor surfaces. They will become unsteady at first as they gradually learn to adapt to the demands of walking outside.
The advantages of outdoor play
Clearly children are able to move freely in both indoor and outdoor environments but, as Solly (2015) identifies, it is primarily outdoor play which affords younger children the most expansive opportunities to learn and grow. Figure 4.4 summarises seven core features of the outdoor play environment which are then described below in greater detail.
Figure 4.4 The important benefits of outdoor play (Inspired by Solly, 2015)
No matter how life-enhancing outdoor experience may be, the quality of adult participation is absolutely critical to successful outcomes, with Stephenson, for example making it clear that ‘despite the importance of a challenging environment, children’s hunger for physical challenge was satisfied more through the practitioners’ attitudes than the provision itself.’ (Stephenson, 2003). And considering the issue from the alternative perspective of childcare professionals, Sandseter emphasises that ‘finding the balance between allowing children to explore and take risks in their play while also avoiding serious injuries is not an easy exercise.’ (Sandseter, 2011). For those managing childcare settings, the implications are clear: not only must children be supervised by enthusiastic and experienced practitioners, staff in turn must also receive unequivocal gold-standard encouragement, assistance and approval. Tovey explains just how much this can influence the provision:
‘… where practitioners felt supported within their teams and understood the benefits of risk-taking, they were confident to offer experiences which included some element of risk and challenge. Where practitioners felt unsupported by senior staff and anxious about blame and possible litigation, they were less likely to make provision for adventurous play.’ (Tovey, 2010).
The professional risks for practitioners are real and must be fully addressed to unlock the potential enhancements they alone can contribute by their wholehearted commitment to challenging play. Tovey has offered some practical suggestions by which this could be achieved. These are conceptualised in Figure 4.5 and then outlined below.
Figure 4.5 A framework for supporting inspirational outdoor play (Inspired by Tovey, 2011)
Encouraging adventurous play in the early years is all about initiating the development of risk wise adults with a ‘go for it’ mentality. Though no one knows what the future holds, most UK families can recall the strong spirit which sustained their forebears through times of war and harsh conditions until better times returned. Accepting a challenge, rather than feeling crushed by it, will always be an essential part of such resilience, causing author Polly Morland to ask:
‘Given that a world without risk is unthinkable and that hyper-caution may prove as undesirable, and as hazardous, as mindless thrill-seeking, consider this: … Where is the Risk Wise sweet spot?’ (Morland, 2015).
It is surely the core task of high-quality outdoor play provision to equip every early years child with the means to answer that question.