During winter, we often see children’s opportunities for playing reduce significantly due to fears for their safety. The paths are slippery, and the yards and fields are icy or full of mud. Where necessary, significant risks to children’s safety and wellbeing need to be reduced. But most winters we curtail children’s risky play because of skewed perceptions, instinctive reactions and secondary risk management (Elizer’s mum will go ballistic if she goes through the knee of those new school trousers!) The result? An unreasonably harsh application of safety measures.
Risky play or playing with uncertainty enables children to place themselves in situations that have a sense of jeopardy and risk without overexposure to the serious likelihood of harm (Gordon & Esbjorn-Hargens, 2007; Pellis, 2013). When creating risky scenarios in their play, children might more accurately be described as being in control of generating the feeling of being out of control. Ellen Sandseter researched the risky play of children in their early years and found that these forms of play were significant to children. The children called it ‘Scary fun’. Children seek opportunities to develop this scary fun in their play because it’s exhilarating and thrilling, gives them a sense of pride and achievement when mastering a new challenge, and influences their self-esteem, self-confidence and peer relationships.
From her research with children, Sandseter (2010b) identifies eight different ways that children play with risk:
- Playing at height – experiencing climbing, hanging/dangling, balancing and jumping
- Playing at speed – running, sliding, cycling or rolling at speeds that feel out of or on the edge of control
- Playing with dangerous tools – using an axes, saws, knives, hammers and ropes etc.
- Play near dangerous elements – the excitement of playing when there is a risk of falling in or off into something, perhaps water or mud
- Rough and tumble play – physical contact play with swords and sticks, or just wrestling
- Playing free of adult supervision – playing as exploration and discovery perhaps in new spaces but particularly with a sense of freedom from supervision
- Play with impact – playing on the dodgems or at least recreating opportunities that trigger the same feelings from exaggerated collisions
- Vicarious play – playing where the thrill is derived from watching others.
When children play in the ways that Sandseter identifies, they are finding and generating experiences that give them real feelings of exhilaration and excitement nervousness, anxiety, even fear. Playing in this way enables children to test, explore, extend and refine their capabilities continuously, and the possibilities afforded by each other and their environments.
Playing with uncertainty in these ways requires children to practice a high degree of risk management for themselves. Playing with uncertainty stimulates physical and biological responses that influence the way children feel and then requires them to work out what they want to do about those feelings. Children’s risk management processes include understanding, predicting and evaluating (executive function, hypothesis testing), and importantly translating all that processing into meaningful bodily response (hierarchical integration of brain-body systems).
Playing with uncertainty is training for life
Throughout life, there is nothing more certain than we will be faced with uncertainty and challenging experiences that will make us anxious, nervous, uncomfortable, exhilarated, even scared. Playing with uncertainty and engaging with risk through play is the perfect training ground for a life full of uncertainty. Put simply, when children are empowered to generate play that for them presents a sense of risk, we are enabling them to build the sense of confidence and self-esteem, coupled with experiences and skills, that contribute to their developing resilience.
Weighing up benefits and risks makes for better practice
Children’s attraction to novelty, flexibility and change, and to the creation of uncertainty (Pellis, 2013) is perfectly matched with their need to discover the world around them, and for the creation of experiences that make for a good life and healthy growth and development. However, as adults and carers of children, we are all too often a little risk-averse. When observing/supervising playing children we regularly overreact, looking to the worst-case scenario rather than allowing the observable facts in front of us to inform our judgements, this can result in the unnecessary curtailing of play opportunities.
Rather than jumping in and stopping play based on our first reactions, it’s a good idea to take just a second or two more to think:
- What is going on here?
- How is it going?
- Why are the children choosing to do it?
- What are the benefits?
- What risks are children actually taking?
- Are children being cautious, managing their or each other’s behaviour?
- Given the benefits and the risks do I really need to stop this?
Where there is time to do this (it only takes seconds), we can avoid overreacting, and instead carefully respond, reflecting on the details of the situation. We can think what processes may be beneficial and what are the real risks, consider potential options and formulate more reasoned responses and interventions.
Better practice equals better play
When we pay attention in this way, we routinely find that children are aware of possible dangers and are taking steps to manage the risks already. When we take these extra few seconds to look, listen and think before acting, the only intervention or response required is often to continue applying a little oversight. One thing is for certain, when adults start to pay attention like this, they learn about children and play, and their attitudes and behaviours towards children and their play change, and children’s opportunities for play improve.
Ben Tawil and Mike Barclay, OPAL School Mentors and Directors of Ludicology
The OPAL Primary Programme can help you harness the power of play at your school. Get in touch and start your journey today.
Gordon, G. & Esbjorn-Hargens, S. (2007) Are we having fun yet? An exploration of the transformative power of play. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, Volume 47, pp.198-122.
Pellis, S. and Pellis, V. (2013) The playful brain: Venturing to the limits of neuroscience. Oxford, UK: Oneworld Publications.
Sandseter, E. B. H., Kleppe, R., & Sando, O. J. (2020). The prevalence of risky play in young children’s indoor and outdoor free play. Early Childhood Education Journal, 1-10.