Part 2_Risk and Play: A Balanced Approach

Wednesday April 27, 2022

In this blog, we look at some of the theory and practice of risky play, playing with uncertainty, scary fun! We argue that often current approaches work at either end of a continuum, each exercising unreasonable constraints on children's ability to engage with risk in their play. We suggest a shift to the middle, where a more balanced approach might be cultivated and where children's play can flourish.

Risk and Play: a balanced approach

The vignettes shared in the first blog of this series, Take a risk on play, illustrate the potential of our species to make the most of this incredibly complex behavioural mode that we call play. They are stories of children expressing their playful disposition. A disposition that is characterised by children being in control whilst also seeking out the pleasure and mild discomfort associated with experiencing uncertainty. In this blog, we look at some of the theory and practice of risky play.

Training for the unexpected

Children need freedom to play – if they have little or no control, they cannot experience what Gordon and Esbjorn-Hargens (2007) referred to as ‘being in control of being out of control’. Children riding bikes is a perfect example of this. For many children, after initially mastering the uncertainty of learning to ride a bike, the next thing they do is re-introduce some uncertainty by taking one hand off the handlebars. Just momentarily at first, and that’s as far as some children will get. But others move on to ride around proudly one handed before, yet again, introducing more uncertainty by taking the other hand off too!

The motivation here is the thrill associated with the momentary sense of disequilibrium. By creating these situations children experience first-hand the feelings associated with mild stress and uncertainty (psychological arousal) but within the relative safety of play where risks are relatively low. These are simple pleasures, but they also represent ‘ordinary magic’, everyday experiences that enable children to develop their capacities into capabilities for coping with uncertainty and stress (Lester and Russell, 2008). Or what Spinka, Newberry and Bekoff (2001) described as ‘training for the unexpected’.

Between order and chaos

Children will create opportunities for play in the most constraining and chaotic of environments, however as Battram and Russell (2002) suggested, play is best supported somewhere between order and chaos. Play depends on freedom and this freedom depends on children, and their care givers, feeling ‘safe enough’ but not too safe for play to occur. Children will struggle to play where their basic rights to survival are threatened or where their environments feel too dangerous for play to be allowed. Equally they cannot play if all their actions are controlled by adults. There must be some disorder and uncertainty.

Marketta Kytta (2004) recognises this in her fields of action model. Where children have freedom to play, Kytta describes them as experiencing a field of free action. A time/space where they can make use of all the possibilities for play within their environment. However, Kytta identifies other types of time/space where children’s actions are constrained and/or regulated – where their opportunities for engaging in uncertainty within the relative safety of play are restricted.

Attitudes towards children’s safety

Here we want to illustrate two significant contexts which, in terms of attitudes towards children’s safety, sit at opposing ends of the same continuum but which both serve to constrain and regulate children’s play. Both are concerned with the way we, in our societies, think about children and their childhoods and how this influences the extent of children’s freedom to play. For some these examples may seem like a sort of dystopian future, of what could happen if we get it all wrong, for others it may seem like a pretty accurate description of the current state of things. Both situations have certainly been true in the UK and it’s likely that these issues pervade to some extent in other countries across the world.

Adult control and order

At one extreme we have children under constant supervision by adults within the institutions of childhood, for example school. Here constructs of childhood influence how adults think about play and therefore how they respond to play. In the UK, dominant constructs of childhood have tended to focus on childhood as a process of becoming adult. Childhood has been presumed to be the same for all children where they are expected to pass through uniform stages towards adulthood, the point of completion and the standard against which children are judged. As Smith (2009) suggested, in this construct children can be seen as vulnerable angels in need of constant protection or devious devils in need of strict training and discipline – not yet capable enough or too reckless to manage risks for themselves.


Such an approach represents a deficit model of childhood, focusing on what children are lacking in terms of adult attributes rather than on the capabilities they possess as children. In doing so it marginalizes childhood and so children’s behaviours, opinions and cultures matter less than adults (Prout, 2008). Play in particular may be considered as something that belongs to childhood and is therefore either trivialized, as something that should happen only when all the real work is done, or is only really valued when it can be seen to contribute directly to the development of adult valued attributes (Meire, 2007). This instrumental approach to play often results in adults getting involved in children’s lives to ensure their play is “purposeful”, disregarding or even discouraging those forms of play that appear to not make sense. Here children are taught how to ride a bike properly!

The result is environments characterised by adult control and order. In the pursuit of predestined outcomes, we have constrained play to such a degree that children are unable to generate their own situations of uncertainty. This is compounded by adult fears associated with litigation which means safety rather than play is often the primary concern.

A constraining public realm

At the other end of the continuum, we have children trying to play in a public realm which they again have little control over. Children will struggle to play, and parents/carers will struggle to allow them to do so, in situations where the environment feels too dangerous. When people are preoccupied by trying to survive or protect their loved ones from what they perceive to be a significant risk of serious injury or death, freedoms will again be curtailed. As a parent once said to us ‘you want your children to have some independence and take some risks but when the first risk they meet when they go outside is a significant risk of death, it’s a bit much’.

In the UK, traffic arguably presents the most obvious and constraining factor on children’s freedom of movement and play in the public realm. Here the priority has been economic progress, which again serves to marginalise children and their childhoods because they are not yet seen as useful economic beings.

A greater priority has been placed on space for industry and commerce, and the associated movement of workers and goods. The domination of vehicles and loss of public space erodes people’s sense of safety and community, leading to a withdrawal of children and parents from the public realm (Russell et al, 2020). Here the risk of wobbling on your bike when trying to ride non-handed is that you fall into the path of a moving vehicle.

The response is more children playing indoors more of the time and a greater emphasis on play in particular designated spaces. These spaces have traditionally been provided to protect children from the risks of the public realm, separated from it and again subject to adult concerns associated with safety and perceptions of incapable children (Murnaghan, 2019). Partly as a consequence of these spaces, children’s play is often seen as out of place in other parts of the public realm leading to further restrictions on their playful behaviour.

A perfect storm

In the UK, we ended up with what Tim Gill (circa 2007, radio interview) described as a ‘perfect storm’, a combination of factors that served to constrain children’s freedom to play both within adult supervised settings and throughout the wider public realm. Both situations illustrate a failure to pay attention to children and account for the ways in which they instinctively behave, use space and support their own well-being and healthy development. To some extent, adults have been preoccupied with either removing risks from children or removing children from risks, as well as protecting themselves from accusations of negligence. Either way, the costs are the benefits lost of making it so much harder for children to engage with uncertainty in their play. These costs include increased incidents of adolescents reporting poor mental health, an erosion of public trust and increased fear of others, more sedentary lifestyles and the much-maligned ‘cotton wool culture’. These costs present a much greater risk to children than most of the risks they expose themselves to.

What we need is a move to the middle and a balanced approach to risk management with a view to both liberating the public realm and loosening the constraints of adult control, to create spaces and places of possibility. Spaces where children feel ‘safe enough’ but have sufficient freedom to engage in uncertainty of their own volition. Where adults feel like they can provide a relaxed field of care and supervision. Where adults pay attention to children and their developing capabilities, rather than some pre-conceived and abstract ideas about children. Where we think about the ways in which we impact directly and indirectly on children’s lives and our adult responsibilities and attitudes towards play and risk.

Increasing possibilities for play

Going back to Kytta’s (2004) fields of action, if we can reduce some of the time/space that constrains children’s actions and prevents them from playing in the public realm, we will enable children to find and create more and larger fields of free action. Equally, if we can reduce some of the regulating effects of how we supervise children, we can enable them to feel like they are experiencing a greater degree of free action within adult run institutions. And, importantly, we can increase children’s possibilities for play by enhancing the range of environmental resources available to them, which they will then be able to make use of with their new found freedom.


Battram, A. and Russell, W. (2002) The Edge of Recalcitrance: Playwork Order and Chaos, paper presented at the ‘Spirit of play is alive and kicking’ Play Wales conference. Cardiff, June.

Gill, T. (2007). No fear. Growing up in risk averse society. Londyn: Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation

Gordon, G. and Esbjorn-Hargens, S. (2007) Are We Having Fun Yet? An exploration of the transformative power of play, Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 47, pp. 198-122.

Kyttä, M. (2004) The Extent of Children’s Independent Mobility and the Number of Actualized Affordances as Criteria for Child-friendly Environments, Journal of Environmental Psychology, 24, pp. 179-198.

Meire, J. (2007). Qualitative Research on children’s play: a review of recent literature. In: Jambout, T. and Van Gils, J. (Eds) Several Perspectives on Children’s Play: Scientific Reflections for Practitioners. Antwerp: Garant

Murnaghan, A. M. (2019) Play and Playgrounds in Children’s Geographies, in Skelton, T. and Aitken, S. (eds) Establishing Geographies of Children and Young People, Singapore: Springer, pp. 407-425.

Prout, A. (2008). Culture-Nature and the Construction of Childhood, in Drotner, K. and Livingstone, S. (eds) The International Handbook of Children, Media and Culture, London: Sage, pp. 21-35

Russell, W., Barclay, M., Tawil, B. and Derry, C. (2020) Making it Possible to do Play Sufficiency: Exploring the conditions that support local authorities to secure sufficient opportunities for children in Wales to play, Cardiff: Play Wales.

Smith, P. (2009) Children and Play: Understanding Children’s Worlds, Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell

Spinka, M., Newberry, R. and Bekoff, M. (2001) Mammalian Play: Training for the Unexpected. The Quarterly Review of Biology, Vol. 76, No. 2 (Jun., 2001), pp. 141-168

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