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The trouble with ‘risky play’

8 Jun
First in a short series of articles about risk, play and policy.

Last month, the Lawson Foundation in Canada announced a new grants programme aimed at ‘getting kids outside and enjoying unstructured, risky play’. This was just the latest example of how the ‘risky play’ banner has been adopted far and wide by advocates aiming to promote giving children greater freedom and more opportunities for adventurous, outdoor play.

But what does ‘risky play’ actually mean? And is its increasingly widespread use to describe one of the primary aims of the play movement, unproblematic? Or is it, in fact, an unnecessarily (ahem) risky strategy, making us hostages to fortune?

In this series of articles, Adrian Voce, who inadvertently had a role in popularising it, will argue that ‘risky play’ is an ambiguous, contradictory term, open to misinterpretation (wilful or otherwise) and that the whole question of how we manage and promote risk is now tending to overshadow and distort some of the wider issues around children’s right to play.

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Photo: Play England

Playday in 2008, was the apogee of that decade’s sustained campaign for UK government action to address the decline in children’s outdoor play opportunities. In April of that year the government had announced a £235m national play strategy for England, commissioning Play England as its delivery partner. Independent of this new government funding, Play England was also, at that time, the lead partner for the Big Lottery Fund’s £155m Children’s Play Initiative. This twin role, and the resources that came with it, enabled the newly reformed and expanded national body to exercise an unprecedented level of influence on national policy for play in England, and an equivalent public profile.

So it was that Playday 2008, with Play England leading the media campaign, reached previously unknown levels of attention. Double-page spreads in the biggest selling tabloids; TV and cinema ‘infomercials’; and interviews on mass-audience TV and radio news programmes had become the norm since the Play Strategy launch in April. This coverage reached a climax in August, when an estimated 1m children attended free Playday events up and down the country, previewed on Radio 4’s Today programme.

Newspaper headlines … and a genie released

Among the many other media items at that time, The Observer, on the Sunday before Playday, featured an interview with me, as Play England’s director, where I talked about the Playday theme, which we called ‘Give us a Go!’ to highlight children’s concerns that they were being denied traditional, adventurous play opportunities such as tree-climbing by an over-protective adult world. Three days later, on Playday itself the Guardian carried my own comment piece, where I discussed the findings of our research, published that day, suggesting that children were being increasingly deprived of free play by a risk-averse culture. Although nowhere in either the interview or the comment piece did I use it, the Guardian’s sub-editors picked up on the term ‘risky play’, used in our literature review to summarise the type of behaviours explored in some of the studies of risk and play (e.g. Christensen and Mikkelsen, 2007). Hence, the headlines appeared: ‘Kids need the adventure of “risky” play’ and ‘Risky play prepares kids for life’ – and a genie was out of its bottle.

the headlines appeared: ‘Kids need the adventure of “risky” play’, and ‘Risky play prepares kids for life’ – and a genie was out of its bottle.

The term ‘risky play’ does not appear anywhere in the Play Safety Forum’s long-standing position statement on Managing Risk in Play Provision – the well-established rationale for weighing risks against benefits in play provision that was, and is, widely agreed across the sector – nor in the first edition of the new document of the same name that Play England published at that time as part of a raft of guidance to underpin the Play Strategy. Even Tim Gill’s (2007) ‘No Fear: growing up in a risk averse society’, an entire book on the subject, does not use the term. Nevertheless, ‘risky play’ began to emerge as shorthand for the risk-benefit approach we were all promoting and has continued to gain currency ever since.

The term was not, in fact, coined by the Guardian’s headline writers, or by Josie Gleave, the author of Play England’s review. ‘Risky play’ appears in academic literature from the same period and earlier. Sandseter (2007) notes that there was a new focus on ‘children’s right to do risky play’ but no studies to define or categorise it: a situation she then sets out to rectify. Sandseter draws, for her study, on earlier theories about the relationship between child development and risk-taking – and the implications of this dynamic for human evolution – found in the work of Bruner, Jolly and Sylva (1976) for example, as well as more recent studies from the likes of Ball, about the play sector’s response to the issue.

Such an understanding … has been a key to the development of playwork and adventure playgrounds ever since Lady Allen of Hurtwood said ‘better a broken bone than a broken spirit’.

Within the field of playwork, Hughes (2002) has identified ‘deep play’ as one of the distinct play types that practitioners need to be aware of and support through ‘enriched play environments’. Deep play, according to Hughes, is characterised by the child’s instinctive need to seek out and encounter risky situations in their play, to confront danger, challenge their limits and overcome fear. Such an understanding is integral to playwork practice and has been a key to the development of playwork and adventure playgrounds ever since Lady Allen of Hurtwood said ‘better a broken bone than a broken spirit’.

Nowhere, however, did Allen, Hughes or any other playwork pioneers adopt the term ‘risky play’ to describe either an innate play behaviour or an aspect of play provision; and Sandseter’s use of the term is in the context of an academic study of children’s behaviour, not a policy proposal or campaigning slogan.

The central role of risk, and how it is managed in the adventure playground tradition is highly pertinent here. It was Lady Allen who coined the term ‘adventure playgrounds’ to better describe the ‘junk playgrounds’ that she was busy setting up and promoting after being inspired by her seminal visit to Emdrup in Denmark. One can only wonder how far we would have come had Lady Allen decided to call her newly imported idea, ‘risky playgrounds’.

‘Risky’ or ‘adventurous’? A question of language

The dictionary defines an adventure as ‘an unusual and exciting or daring experience’, as well as ‘the excitement associated with danger or the taking of risks’. Its main synonyms are ‘exploit’, ‘escapade’, ‘deed’ and ‘feat’. Adventurous is defined as ‘willing to take risks or to try out new methods, ideas, or experiences … full of excitement’. Its synonyms are ‘audacious’, ‘bold’, ‘courageous’, ‘enterprising’, and, yes, ‘risky’.

Risk on the other hand is defined as ‘a situation involving exposure to danger; the possibility that something unpleasant or unwelcome will happen; a person or thing regarded as a threat or likely source of danger. Its main synonyms are ‘chance’, ‘uncertainty’, ‘danger’, ‘threat’ and ‘menace’. Risky is defined as ‘full of the possibility of danger, failure, or loss’, with synonyms, ‘dangerous’, ‘high-risk’, ‘hazardous’, ‘unsafe’, ‘precarious’ and ‘dodgy’.

it is not pedantic to want to find and use words that best describe what is being done and why

Language matters. In any field of public endeavour, where practice and the conveyance of what it stands for are equally important, it is not pedantic to want to find and use words that best describe what is being done and why. Although ‘risky’ and ‘adventurous’ are, in a sense, synonymous, the latter word has an unarguably more positive meaning. It also captures much better the essence of children at play – wanting to push the boundaries, test their limits and, sure, take some risks – but in the pursuit of fun and excitement, not the reckless endangerment that the term ‘risky play’ can evoke.

How the adult world responds to this important evolutionary and developmental impulse in children has undoubtedly tended in recent decades towards excessive caution. A more regulated public realm and a more litigious culture are partly to blame. But however much the play movement may now want to rehabilitate the concept of risk, adopting the term ‘risky play’ as a positive label to promote a less risk-averse approach, is it realistic to attempt such an inversion of language and its meaning in the common lexicon? We know what we mean by risky play, but does everyone? Do parents? Will the popular press, in the event of tragedy? Is it time for a rethink?

What the play movement has achieved in this area over the last 15 years is considerable. We have nudged the whole sector, sanctioned by the Health and Safety Executive, away from ‘eliminating risk’ towards ‘weighing up risks and benefits when designing and providing play opportunities and activities’. The problem with the banner ‘risky play’ is that it emphasises the risks, not the benefits. Children are drawn, naturally, healthily, to certain kinds of risky behaviour when they play; but ‘risky’ cannot be the most appropriate word to describe the opportunities and environments we want to provide for them, or the practice we adopt in doing so.

In future articles in this series, I will further explore some of the problems of continuing to promote ‘risky play’ as such, and also consider the less apparent costs of the play movement placing so such much emphasis on this issue.

Adrian Voce

Bruner, J.S., Jolly, A. and Sylva, K., eds. (1976) Play: its role in development and evolution, Harmondsworth: Penguin

Christensen, P. and Mikkelsen, M.R. (2007) ‘Jumping off and being careful: children’s strategies of risk management in everyday life’, in Sociology of Health & Illness, vol.30, no.1. pp112-130.

Gill, T. (2007) No Fear: Growing up in a risk averse society, London: Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation

Hughes, B. (2002) A playworker’s taxonomy of play types (second edition). London: PLA YLINK.

Sandseter, E. B. H. (2007a). Categorizing risky play: how can we identify risk-taking in children’s play? European Early Childhood Education Research Journal, 15, 237- 252.

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