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Event report: risky play

Children jumping - Image credit: PA

Event report: risky play

When children are given the opportunity to take part in risky and challenging play, they are developing a whole range of important life skills

A number of years ago, the Edinburgh Evening News ran a story about children playing with real hammers and saws at the Cowgate Under-5s Centre, a council-run nursery which follows the Froebelian approach.

At the time, it was somewhat of a scandal – how could the nursery be so irresponsible as to let young children play with real tools? Who had sanctioned this madness? What was the world coming to?

Now, such a ‘story’ would be laughed out of the newsroom, as allowing children to use real tools as a way of enabling them to experiment, develop the ability to self-regulate and assess any risks has become commonplace in nurseries.

‘Risky play’, as it is known, is now a firm fixture in childcare settings up and down the country and can cover everything from climbing trees and swinging from home-made rope swings to sledging down hills and cooking toast on campfires.

The benefits of allowing children to choose to take part in this kind of play are wide-ranging, and include problem-solving, developing emotional resilience, being fit and healthy and confidence-building.

In fact, risky play has become so prevalent in early years childcare settings, and its benefits so widely recognised, that many believe the term itself is already outdated.

That was one of the key themes throughout Holyrood’s recent policy event, entitled Scraped Knees and Big Smiles: Challenge and Risk in the Early Years.

Marguerite Hunter Blair, chief executive of Play Scotland, believes the term used to identify this kind of play should instead be “courageous play”.

“We should try to move away from the word ‘risky’ because it has negative connotations,” she said.

Hunter Blair talked about “play memories” and how these differ from generation to generation.

Older generations will undoubtedly have memories of playing freely outside, with no constraints, no technology to enable them to check in with their parents, fewer cars on the roads and the freedom to explore their surroundings without having mum or dad warning them to “be careful”.

Hunter Blair told delegates about the time a group of Cub Scouts listened to the play memories shared by older members of the audience at an event she was speaking at.

When the boys were then asked if they would like their play memories to be made up of similar activities, they replied that they would be too scared to take part in those kinds of things.

Hunter Blair pointed out that these Cub Scouts will be the next generation of parents, and as a consequence of their own childhoods, where they preferred to stay at home playing computer games, they already had a fear of so-called ‘risky play’.

Educating parents about the benefits of this kind of play is therefore a major hurdle which needs to be overcome as many are – understandably – still fearful for their children’s safety when they climb something too high or go near water or ride their bike too fast.

Doreen Watson, a service manager with the Care Inspectorate, told delegates: “You need to get to know your parents and get to know where they are coming from.

“We do get complaints from parents who say their children are using real tools and it has to stop.

“You have to appreciate the context of where they are coming from.”

Rachel Cowper, Thrive Outdoors’ programme manager at Inspiring Scotland, highlighted the fact that children are in more danger from cyber risks than from play, saying they are more likely to be abducted as a result of contact made on their phones or social media than by somebody taking them from a park.

Cowper told delegates that it was “risk-averse adults” that first coined the term ‘risky play’.

She said it was important that children learned to assess situations for themselves and make their own decisions about whether or not to participate in an activity that could be perceived as risky.

“There are those kids who are more cautious and are risk-assessing for themselves,” she said. “Others may feel more confident, but each child is an individual.”

She pointed out that building resilience is a key life lesson which stems from taking part in ‘risky’ play.

“Children need to know that failure is an option. It’s allowed and it should be encouraged,” she told delegates.

Perhaps what we need to do before anything else is ditch play-based labels altogether, so that it’s not risky play, it’s not even courageous play, it’s just play.

Read the most recent article written by Gemma Fraser - Kate Forbes: 'There is light at the end of the tunnel'

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