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Saturday, June 23, 2012

Good news about risky play: where the magic happens

Do you remember this post about my risky play research assignment last year?

By the time I'd finished that assignment, I was shaking my head in amazement. My amazement was not caused by the children, who took to my risky play scenarios like the proverbial ducks to water-

and then ALL settled down quietly inside to table activities  (unheard of on that particular day of the week with that particular, very energetic demographic!).

No, my sad amazement was the result of my realisation that my biggest problem was going to be changing staff attitudes to risky play. Honestly, it's so easy to get ourselves stuck in a box called 'our comfort zone', and that's particularly true of risk versus safety. It's ever so much easier on our anxieties to be over-cautious. As Tim Gill points out, we live in a risk-averse society. Early childhood professionals are as subject to societal pressures as the next person.

But the truth of working with children is well-illustrated by this picture doing the rounds of Facebook:

If we want magic to happen, developmentally speaking, we have to allow children to be independent- to assess and take risks within our controlled environment, to fail sometimes, to try again. We have to be prepared to apply the odd bandaid and ice pack. We have to dry the odd tear.

You don't change attitudes in a risk-averse society with one day of research activities, no matter how successful your work has been. There was no 'aha moment' that day for the staff. What I saw back then was entrenched risk-avoidance, and a failure to even notice the positive change in the atmosphere created by a strenuous morning of risky play. Comfort zones tend to have solid brick walls around them, with nary a window in sight.

It was, um, depressing.

So when I returned to that centre recently, some six months after completing my research, I suppose you could say I was feeling a bit hopeless. But guess what? I have some good news.

I offered to set up the yard, and I found that the slide, which had been packed away at the back of the shed as 'too dangerous' before my assignment, was in easy reach and had clearly been used. Hallelujah!

I set it up, and when the children came out they slid down,  climbed up the slide, slid on their stomachs, came down sideways, jumped from the top onto the soft fall and performed all sorts of other crazy 'tricks'- without any adult ever saying 'stop'.

There were no collisions. Nobody got hurt. Nobody pushed. Everyone had a ball.

I got out the balance beams, and set them upon the higher setting- unheard of six months ago- with a thin mattress invitingly placed alongside.

"Can we jump off?" asked one child, eyes sparkling.

"Of course!"

And they did- all of them- some leaping without hesitation, some being more cautious, some so confident they did tricks. One girl had perfected a 270 degree turn in the air by 11am.

Nobody said "stop". Nobody got hurt. Nobody pushed. Everyone had a ball.

Then one little live-wire boy decided he wanted the planks turned into slippery dips too. I watched him try to pick up the heavy wooden planks by himself to rearrange them. I said nothing.

He looked over to me, struggling, and I said "Do you want some help?" He nodded, grinning, and directed me to where he wanted the plank to go.

"Is that safe there, or too wobbly?" I asked.

He tested.

He rejected.

We adjusted.

Soon all the planks had been turned into slides, in a way I never would have thought of myself! Other children noticed the rearrangement, and started to develop plans of their own. Next thing, the mattress had been moved to the end of the slide and some children were flying down and finishing off with a somersault.

On the other side of the playground, a somewhat withdrawn child started trying to climb the latticed walls of the sandpit (on the inside, I might say, where he would only fall on sand). I didn't stop him. Neither did anyone else.

He got right to the top and touched the ceiling; he investigated every 'bug' he could find, and brought some interesting 'treasures' down to show the other children.

A smaller child tried to climb up, and failed.

"Can you help me?" he asked me.

"No," I said. "If you can't get up there, you aren't quite ready to be up there."

He accepted this happily enough.

The screams that day were only ever of delight. I didn't need a single bandaid, and I didn't write a single accident report. When the children went inside, again they settled down to table activities peacefully- even that little live-wire boy!

Is that wonderful, or is that wonderful?

Yes, there had been a slight change in the staffing- and I don't for a moment underestimate the impact of that. Changes of attitude require fresh outlooks and strong leadership. It wasn't all about what I did that day six months ago- not at all! But I think I may have broken the ice, and then a new permanent staff member with an open mind had applied gentle heat.

What I saw from the children confirmed everything I've learnt through my reading about risky play. There was a noticeable range of behaviour on the play equipment, depending on the individual child's confidence in their own skills. In other words, the children only took risks they were comfortable with. In the absence of an adult voice crowing "Be careful!" at 30 second intervals, they took responsibility themselves for being careful while challenging themselves appropriately for their own developmental stage.

Isn't that what we want? Doesn't that make our lives easier?

Even more interesting than that was the impact that having some agency had on these children. My little live-wire, for example, had started the day by punching, biting and kicking me- a sort of welcome by fire (I think perhaps he was so pleased to see me that he couldn't find any appropriate way to express it). A little firm holding of hands and gentle talk had helped him to pull back a little, but what that child needed was to express himself physically.

He needed to run fast without being thwarted- and he did. He needed to peg a ball towards me and challenge me to catch it- and he did. He needed to fly down that slide backwards and jump off the top and burn off his big feelings.

He needed challenge and risk, and he got it.

What would have happened if he'd had some adult shouting "Slow down, you'll hurt yourself," or "Throw the ball at that target," or otherwise trying to contain his energy to a risk-free box? You join the dots. Where would that energy have gone?

And what about the agency in designing his own play space? Our interaction over the placement of the beams particularly delighted him; he flew up and down the structures he'd designed, and then- wonder of wonders- invited others to join him (wow, without punching them?!), grinning broadly the whole time. He shared; he took turns.

That was a very desirable social outcome from what started as a physical activity and then became a technological activity.

And my other, socially withdrawn young friend suddenly wanted to share his findings, suddenly shared with me and with his peers his interest in bugs, suddenly could do something the others couldn't do and stood tall.

The physical became the scientific; the scientific became the social.

Don't underestimate the power of risky play. It can often be that place 'where magic happens'.


  1. What a good news post, I remember reading your original one & linking it up on one of mine on risky play & often wondered had attitiudes changed. Good to know they have, I generally feel that if staff are given a little 'education' on the why for of risky play they do embrace it - they see the benefits for themselves when they go inside. Thanks for the update!

  2. Thank you again - a great blog and so relevant at the moment with changes the new Regulations have brought and a general awareness that children should be seen as quite capable to risk assess situations themselves and then decide if they want to proceed. Great to see the young lad going down the slide the way he wants to....and not being told to slide down sitting on his bottom....let them go down on their tummy,standing up, upside down, head first, side many ways CAN you go down or UP a slide!

    1. Well Niki, the best one I saw (other than the ones who did a somersault at the end) was a little indigenous boy who'd perfected a 360-degree twist as he slid down on his back. :D

  3. I think seeing someone else model appropriate actions and comments around risky situations is helpful for many practitioners. It kind of gives them permission to test the waters and experiment. I also believe that we all need opportunities to discuss issues around risk, challenge and to safely voice concerns without being put down or made to feel small. Usually people have a good reason for doing what they do.

    I've also found that there can a huge "now and then" difference between the first event and 6 months later when people have stepped out of their comfort zone... thanks for a lovely post.

    1. It's funny, Juliet- at the time I really didn't think the other staff members were listening as I narrated the kids through the dangerous behaviours (such as pushing each other off the slide ladder) and social niceties. But something has definitely changed. It's certainly evidence for the power of modelling the behaviour you want to see, even with adults!

  4. Great post, with some choice stories to make your crucial point: we grown-ups need to get a little outside our comfort zones if children are to do the same. Thanks for the name-check too.

    1. Thank YOU, Tim! Great to see you here again.

  5. Love it, great to be reminded of this.

    The problem being the increasingly litigious society we live in. I had to sign a form the other day to allow my 4 yr old daughter to walk down the front kinder fence for an "incursion" to watch cars, buses people go past - ridiculous

    1. Totally ridiculous! I gave up a job at a secondary school where the parents had to sing permission slips fr their children to attend their own school concert accompanied by their parents! Crazy!

  6. What I love about this, apart from everything. Ok, let me start again. What I love BEST about this is how you let a youngster realise that they were not getting any help climbing that lattice & if they couldn't get up there themselves then they weren't ready. That child will return & be prepared to take risks over and over again until they succeeed. BRILLIANT!

    1. What I loved was the way he accepted it!! I thought he might protest, but there wasn't a whimper.

  7. This is such a lovely post! I have to say, I am so glad our children's preschool was very aware of the benefits of this sort of play. We had a large climbing structure that led to a deck and a slide & it was the main attraction for everyone. But it required being able to climb up the side of the wall (with little footholds). All the kids knew that they had to not only be able to climb UP, but also be able to come DOWN. Teachers would stand by to make sure they wouldn't get hurt, but they wouldn't put them up or bring them down. The same message you gave the little boy in your post of "when you are ready, you can do it yourself" was made clear.

    The moment of managing to do it themselves was such an extraordinary thing to witness. There was so much pride in their achievement and so much confidence instilled. To think that would all be taken away because the structure would be thought "too dangerous" for the little ones makes me so sad.

    Loved this post. Sharing! :)

    1. Thank you, Gina!

      You are indeed lucky to have found such a forward-thinking preschool for your children. And yes, that moment of achievement- such as when my little boy in the sandhouse got right to the top and touched the ceiling- is a very special moment to witness.

  8. As much as I agree with you on most part, unfortunately, enrichment centres in Singapore still apply classical thinking and we simply cannot blame them because parents are still very skeptical towards child safety by any means. Getting out of the comfort zone does help in providing a different perspective and a different learning curve will be experienced by the child.

    1. I hear you, ECS. Changing the thinking of adults is the hard part. However given that recent research has discovered the correlation between banning risky play and inappropriate risk-taking in later life, I think it's every professional educator's responsibility to acknowledge that change must happen. This is why educators are asked to engage in professional development through their career- to keep up with current research so their practices don't become stale and outdated.

  9. Your posts are a great read and very insightful. Its a true joy to see children test their limits and learn to trust their body.
    It's such a shame that I cant use your blog posts as part of my research project. Should of seen the look on my, incredibly anal about safety, teachers face when I told her my chosen topic.


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