The twenty first century has been characterised with high risk aversion compared to previous generations. Our society’s fixation on safety and ‘no risk’ means that play environments are often devoid of adventure and interest. The avoidance of risky play is however counterintuitive to what we have learnt in our studies and experience as professional educators. We have learnt that environments that contain elements of surprise, allow adults and children to learn, grow and develop.
Often when speaking with adults and grandparents about their childhood, there are familiar stories of being outdoors, climbing trees and spending long durations exploring. Do you remember your childhood? The secret places, the fun, the danger, the freedom, the long days, the exhaustion? Did you take risks?
Now compare this to the world our children live in now. A lot of their time is spent inside, in risk free environments and on screens. In a recent survey of families by Planet Ark, they found that there has been a significant shift of outdoor activity to indoors. In the national survey, 73 per cent of the respondents said they played outside more often than inside as children, yet these same adults said that less than 13 per cent of their children now play outside. Disturbingly one in 10 children play outside once a week or less the report found.
Of concern is the reluctance of children to engage in healthy and risky play. In the Planet Ark survey, parents indicated that less than 20 per cent of their children climbed trees, a significant drop from the 65 per cent of parents who had climbed trees as children.
We know that for children to be able to effectively learn, children need to engage in play that involves and immerses them. At Care for Kindies we are passionate about making sure outdoor and imaginative play is a significant proportion of your child’s day. The trend of ‘risk aversion’ allows little opportunity for children to learn and make their own mistakes. Children actually have to risk a scraped knee or even come into contact with dirt to experience enriching lessons.
It is important to explain that we are not encouraging risk but we do encourage exploration. We are aware that no play space is risk-free. No matter how much we try to mitigate or remove the risk of children being hurt, children (and adults) can still get hurt. The greater risk is not providing children with the skills and abilities to identify and mitigate risk when they come across it so they can engage with the big wide world. A risk is something that is possible to negotiate and may be appropriate for particular situations and children. A hazard is something that is inherently dangerous and which we would remedy.
We also need to think about how we talk to our children when they are playing. Creating adventurous children is also about building them up through our words and actions, showing joy in their achievements and also in them just attempting to do something. Our words as educators and parents can be as simple as ‘you can do it’, ‘wow you did that so well’, ‘we can try that again’. All of these compliments are gentle and positive ways of encouraging children to keep going and not to give up.
We are promoters of being adventurous and creating opportunities for children (and adults) to explore and test their own capacities, to manage risk, and to grow as capable, resourceful and resilient children and adults. Risk free play devoid children of the opportunity to learn, engage and explore with the world.