There is an ongoing debate whether to prioritise the safety of children or the benefits of risky play in early years setting. More particularly, the contention is on the issue of making certain children are safe against allowing them to play in emotionally and physically motivating and challenging contexts. The emphasis is currently on the right of children to participate in risky play. Thus far, there are no investigations classifying risky play. This study will attempt to accomplish this.
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In the present study, risky play is defined as stimulating or thrilling varieties of play that involve a possibility of physical harm. Children usually want to and participate in risky or challenging varieties of play although, and to a certain extent, it involves the risk of getting injured or hurt. Because of the safety concerns of the Western culture, the issue of risky play in early years and the degree such play should be monitored and regulated are crucial and continuous debates (Greenfield 2003). These debates on play safety have generated safety proceedings and legislation from concerned child care workers and parents. This has invoked further disputes on the balance between the benefits of risky play for child development on one hand, and safety proceedings and litigations on the other hand (New, Mardell & Robinson 2005).
Normally, play occurs under the supervision of adults, hence controlling what children are permitted to do and where they are permitted to go (Gill 2007). For this reason, adults are influencing the safety of children when playing, and, simultaneously, they embody the greatest limitation on the child’s capability of experiencing challenges and risks that are eventually favourable for development (Gill 2007). A persistent argument in the literature is the children gain developmentally from taking risk, and that too much protection from risk can hamper development.
Historical and Current Context of the Debate
In a continuously evolving world, environmental and social aspects have significantly affected children’s opportunities for emotionally and physically challenging play. Where previously youngsters may have played in the street, playing ball games, riding bicycles or playing other outdoor activities, increased road hazards has made the streets and play opportunities restricted to children as the risk or perils are extremely high. Children nowadays are confined to their houses or designated areas for relatively secured places to play. Still even these are transforming (Ball 2002). With increasing populations, the enlarged need for housing in several areas, specifically urban areas, is weakening the play spaces of children. High-density housing is increasingly becoming widespread and housing units are becoming smaller (Rivkin 1995). Coupled with diminished opportunities for parents to allocate time for the supervision and participation in their children’s play due to expanded work obligations, this condition has led to greatly decreased opportunities for children’s participation in risky play (Rivkin 1995).
In addition to this, diminished risky play experiences have been ascribed to the fears of parents for the safety of their children. A UK survey discovered that, although 91 percent of the grown-ups asked understood the benefit of risky play, 60 percent said they were worried about their children’s safety when playing in unsafe places (Valentine & McKendrick 1997). Consequently, parents place higher constraints on their children’s independent plays. Their worries have aided the development of overprotective or domineering parenting, by which the world is viewed as a naturally unsafe place from which children have to be protected (New et al. 2005). This concern for safety is present on several levels, involving concerns linked to safety stemming from ‘stranger danger’ (p. 49) and increased street hazards, as well as those linked to harm inflicted by the use of play equipment, such as skateboards, roller blades, etc., and playground.
In contrast, Ball (2002) emphasises that, because the advantages of risky play are not simply determined using recognised western scientific processes, they have a tendency not to be properly regarded in discussions about risk and play. He argues: “If the purpose of an activity is not directly considered, then a balance between risk and benefit cannot be struck and one is in danger of considering only one side of the equation” (p. 51). It is claimed risk taking can have favourable effects in terms of children’s emotional, social and developmental needs, as well as their general well-being (Ball 2002). Advocates of risky play tend to argue that removing risks deny children the opportunity to evaluate them competently, and hence they are unprepared to cope with any circumstances they may experience in later life (Children’s Play Council 2004). It is argued that, by giving chances to children to deal with their own risks in a regulated environment, they will become skilled at important life capabilities required for adulthood, and acquire the experience required to confront the changeable nature of the world (Children’s Play Council 2004).
Gill (2007) claims that depriving children this opportunity may generate a society of risk-disinclined population, or citizens incapable of dealing with daily situations, or in children easily locating more hazardous areas to perform their risk-taking behaviour; risk-taking is regarded to have additional advantages, which contribute to the cultivation of favourable personality attributes, such as creativity (Ball 2002). Through exposure to cautiously supervised risks children become skilled at sound judgment in evaluating risks themselves, thus developing self-esteem, resilience, and confidence, attributes that are crucial for their later independence (Ball 2002). Moreover, a developing culture of litigation has led to the elimination of playground paraphernalia from numerous public places and a growing anxiety amongst educators and child care workers that they will be held responsible for any harm sustained by a child while in their supervision (Children’s Play Council 2004).
Moreover, children who adopt and use more minor techniques to play may be open to the more threatening possibilities of chronic illness linked to diminished levels of activity. Experimental data with children in preschools (Smith & Hagan 1980) and early school years (Pellegrini & Davis 1993) shows that participants who have been denied of physical play for a given period of time will, when provided with the opportunity, participate in physical activities that are much more challenging and persistent. This effect of deprivation was discovered to be more intense for boys than for girls and indicates that risk reduction techniques that limit physical activities are prone to have a direct effect on the play’s quality (Mitchell et al. 2006). Hence, the benefit of risk-taking in facilitating children’s development and learning in the context of risky play will be explored in the present study.
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Providing opportunities of risk-taking for children in physical play does not imply that safety is taken for granted. Instead it implies that parents and educators have to be highly aware of the dangers and carry out all the essential steps to make sure that the environment is safe, and to have sufficient number of staffs to supervise risky play (Mitchell et al. 2006). Even within the field of playground safety and harm prevention there is recognition of the benefit of risk-taking during play. As argued by Mitchell and colleagues (2006), “children should have opportunities to explore and experiment in an environment that provides a degree of managed risk” (p. 122), because eventually, regardless how secure the play environment is, it will fall short in meeting its goal if it is not thrilling and appealing for children.
Inopportunely, the concept risk-taking is generally understood with negative implications, with danger and risk usually viewed as synonymous (New et al. 2005). However, Greenfield (2003) thinks a differentiation should be made between these two concepts; risk links to the child’s doubt about being capable of attaining the desired result, involving a decision whether to take risk or not, whilst danger is something the child does not perceive. Grown-ups can mostly perceive the dangers and try to get rid of them. The way is in that case certain for children to confront the challenge and take the risk should they decide to do so (Greenfield 2003). This also requires giving sufficient assistance and supervision and being conscious of those features of the child’s activities that may contribute to severe injury, particularly as an outcome of improper use of playground tools (Ball 2002).
The concept of finding the symmetry is integral if children are to have the chance to encounter some risk in their lives. This symmetry can be realised when adults respond perceptively to individual behaviour patterns (Gill 2007); to recognise and develop children’s capability of evaluating and managing risk, as well as their need for stimulation and challenge in their play.
Risk is a crucial deliberation within the play field, but it remains a comparatively under-studied field. The studies that have been conducted appears to assume that play is both pleasurable and favourable to children, and there is a number of substantiation that children have a higher understanding of and capability of handling risk than they are credited for. It also proposes that chances for children to evaluate and encounter risk in play are constrained because of several attitudes and structural limitations. Several authors call this a ‘risk-averse society’ due to the carefulness of risk evaluation in children’s play opportunity, and the prevailing judgment adults adopt towards risky play.
There is substantiation to indicate that several of the measures that have been adopted to build safer play for children are not needed or efficient. Scholars appeal for acknowledgement of the potential impacts that thorough safety norms have for children, and propose using a new strategy of risk evaluation.
- Ball, D. (2002) Playgrounds: Risks, benefits and choices, Middlesex University: HSE Books.
- Children’s Play Council. (2004) Children’s Play Council Policy Positions: Risk and challenge in children’s play, http://www.ncb.org.uk/dotpdf/open%20access%20-%20phase%20only/policyrisk_cpc_2004.pdf.
- G. Valentine & J. McKendrick. (1997) Children’s outdoor play: Exploring parental concerns about children’s safety and the changing nature of childhood, Geoforum , 219-235.
- Gill, T. (2007) No Fear: Growing up in a risk averse society, London: Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation.
- Greenfield, C. (2003) Outdoor play: The case for risks and challenges in children’s learning and development, Safekids News , 5.
- Mitchell, R., Cavanagh, M. & Eager, D. (2006) Not all risk is bad, playgrounds as a learning environment for children, International Journal of Injury Control and Safety Promotion , 122-124.
- New, R.S., Mardell, B. & Robinson, D. (2005) Early childhood education as risky business: Going beyond what’s ‘safe’ to discovering what’s possible, Early Childhood Research and Practice , 7.
- Pellegrini, A.D. & Davis, P. (1993) Relations between children’s playgroundand classroom behaviour, British Journal , 86-95.
- Rivkin, M. (1995) The great outdoors: Restoring children’s right to play outside, Washington, D.C.: National Association for the Education of Young Children.
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