Play and Risk

Real, proper play is unpredictable and holds out the prospect of delight and satisfaction, but also the possibility of annoyance and anguish. That’s what excites children about play. In doing so, they practice what makes up our everyday lives, reacting flexibly to imponderables. So good play always involves risk.

Play cannot be planned. And that is exactly what makes it so attractive. You start from what is known, a known environment, a known object, with known children or known rules of the game. However, challenges arise in the course of the playing: will the sandcastle collapse again? Is it possible to catch or find someone? What materials can I find to build a den? How do my playmates react when I am the “teacher”? If this excitement is missing, then the game is boring and it stops being good play.
Children hope playing will be fun, but they know that there may be some awkward twists and turns. It is exactly this expectation of enjoyment mixed with fear that animates children in play.
So children take risks consciously, the risk of losing a board game, the risk of not feeling good in new social roles in pretend games and …. the risk of falling when larking about and climbing, the risk of hurting themselves when scrapping and messing around with other children.
Protecting children from injury is so important to many parents and teachers that children are being heavily protected nowadays. Nursery workers and teachers are under great pressure to ensure that their care is safe. For example, in Great Britain, institutions fear legal liability so that it is rare for children to be allowed to use hand tools in adventure playgrounds.
Unfortunately, the long-term risks of childhood being highly protected are hardly considered. Children who do not exercise enough are more likely to injure themselves in just light physical exertion. There is an increased probability that they will be affected by cardiovascular disease as adults. Children who are nearly always supervised have little opportunity for independent social experiences.
Of course, children cannot take account of the many hazards in street traffic. Young children cannot assess water surfaces. But when kids are running, climbing, jumping, balancing, brawling, playing ball or riding a bike, they have a good feel for their own limits and how they can persistently push them further, at their own pace.
What, then, is the adults’ job? Adults need to provide safe play spaces in which children can experience things for themselves, including tears, scratched knees and bruises. This means that all adults, motorists, cyclists, dog owners have to adjust to the fact that public space is also children’s play space.
Without risk there can be no real, free outdoor play. Children cannot develop properly if they grow up without experience of risk. Uncertainties and risks are part of life. We have to find intelligent solutions to the problems that face us throughout our lives. Children’s play involving risk is the natural and essential mechanism by which they prepare themselves for life’s challenges.

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Christiane Richard-Elsner, Draußen spielen, Beltz Juventa 2017.

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