The play experience
In the late nineteenth century, Karl Groos (1901) said “Animals don’t play because they are young, they have a period of youth because they must play; for only by doing so can they supplement their insufficient hereditary endowment with individual experience, in view of the coming tasks of life.” The term ‘niche construction’ hadn’t been invented then, but that’s what he’s talking about, the nature of human development that sees us express and refine our innate adaptive capacities through experience with the social and material world, enabling us to adapt to be fit for whichever environment we grow up in.
The COVID-19 pandemic may have drawn our attention to the influence of uncertainty on the human condition and in particular the effects on our children but Burghardt (2005), Pellegrini (2009) and others remind us that even in more ordinary times we live in highly complex and unstable environments. Our playfulness, extended juvenile period, sensitivity to stimulus and the retention of plasticity that continues well into our second decade are critical in adapting to it (Sutton-Smith, 1997).
An ordinary magic
Playing enables us to develop repertoires of behaviours, cognitive processes, feelings and memories and functional capacity that in the moment may bear no relation to reality but can be drawn upon, rearranged, and applied anew, to meet the demands of our environment. This is what the late great play scholar Brian Sutton-Smith calls the potentiation of adaptive variability (1997). Lester and Russell (2008) remind us that playing has a unique set of behavioural features including personal control, intrinsic motivation, flexibility and variability, pretence, and the creation of uncertainty.
It is the combination of these features in play that make it, as Ann Masten says, a sort of ordinary magic.
Play is a behavioural form that enables players to generate experiences in which mutually dependent processes of gene, brain, body, environment interactions occur. Through play, players express and refine consciously, and unconsciously, common adaptive systems including emotion regulation, stress response, peer and place attachment, learning and creativity, and positive affect (Lester and Russell, 2008).
The same adaptive systems, when functioning healthily, contribute to a person’s resilience (Masten, 2001; Masten, and Obradovic, J, 2006), their ability to cope with uncertainty, overcome and bounce back from adversity, which are key to positive mental and physical health, wellbeing and well becoming. As Brian Sutton-Smith (1997) said:
“The opposite of play isn’t work, it’s depression.”
Or as the late great Adventure playground and children’s advocate Lady Alen of Hurtwood (1968) said when considering the relatively low risks of playing adventurously:
“Better a broken bone, than a broken spirit.”
Risk and play
Excitement and adventure, challenge and triumph, exploration and discovery – none are achievable without encountering uncertainty or taking a risk. Whether you call it risky play or scary-fun (Sandsetter 2007; 2010) or playing with uncertainty (Lester and Russell, 2008), one thing is for certain, it’s an integral part of children’s play and in ensuring children can experience their right to play, we (adults) must engage with it.
Managing those risks is essential, therefore, health and safety is an essential part of our work with playing children. Over the last twenty years or so of working with playing children, and supporting organisations that do the same, we have been fortunate to be able to play around with the application of health and safety systems.
Risk, i.e. the probability of some form of loss is traditionally a calculation of two things: the likelihood of some form of loss coming about and the severity of that loss (Ball, and Ball-King, 2014). Adults risk assessing children’s play often arrive at overexaggerated risk calculations. They pay too much attention to some aspects of the assessment and not enough to others.
We’ve been careful until now to avoid using the term injury, too often there is a singular focus on physical risk taking, we think that’s a mistake. Most risk taking in play is emotional, the activity children are engaged in may be physical but the risk of any loss through physical injury is actually very low, the real risk children are engaging with is one of emotional uncertainty, daring to do a thing is an emotional risk, the loss of face, of hurt pride, of engaging with the unknown, all emotional, exposing oneself, one’s ideas, humour, capabilities etc, all emotional risks.
We think the biggest risk in most children’s play is the probability of some negative impact on their ego identity, their sense of self. This is another reason why the actual risks children are engaging with are relatively low.
Children rarely want to overexpose themselves to any real likelihood of loss and as a result they are much more in-control than they are out of control (Gordon, & Esbjorn-Hargens, 2007) . Children seek out opportunities to generate experiences that are on the edge of their capabilities, experiences that trigger feelings of excitement and jeopardy (Spink, et al, 2001), but those opportunities are rarely outside of their capabilities and so the real risks of emotional and physical injury are actually very low.
Risky play in practice
Here, we are going to share a few stories about some of the children, organisations and health and safety practices we have experienced that ensure children, staff and organisations are as safe as necessary whilst also enjoying the conditions they need for rich play opportunities to emerge.
Of course, the level of risk is in the eye of the beholder. What may seem like the most mundane thing to one person can be highly stimulating to another. Equally, the most dangerous looking activity to one person can be low risk to another. In this series of jumping off pictures, the distance children are from the ground differs, but the level of stimulation and actual risk may well remain the same due to the various competencies and confidence of those jumping.
On this visit to the big swing at a local beauty spot there was an expectation that the huge swing would be the risk-taking opportunity, should children want to engage with it. But it was getting in and swimming in wild water that was the real risk for these children. All competent swimmers, there was no real physical risk, but for them it was a fear of the unknown, an emotional risk. Many simply chose not to go on the big swing, it was too far out of their comfort zone, all were very apprehensive about the wild water swimming, but all wanted to do it so much that they conquered their fear. The outward expression of liberation, of joy in a group of teenagers was incredible.
This example of construction play looks extremely dangerous, but to those who did it there was very little uncertainty. These children and young people were expert risk assessors with incredibly well-developed physical capabilities after years of playing on their local adventure playground. But unless you are prepared to take that into account, as part of a risk benefit assessment, the risk judgement you arrive at would likely not allow for this opportunity. Equally, not one person attempted that which they were not capable of, children were evidently managing their own behaviour and developing rules through negotiation amongst themselves and adhering to them. There was real strength in the face of imagined jeopardy, these children were in control of generating the sense of being out of control.
Despite what the untrained eye might see, they weren’t exposing themselves to any significant likelihood of loss, the risk was actually very low. And these settings had policy and risk benefit strategies that enabled these opportunities to be developed by children.
In this example, a child wanted to swing from the most challenging get on, halfway up the telegraph pole, on the right of the picture. It means you can swing very high, (Biter Picture) but we knew the child in question couldn’t do it. We also knew that intervening would take his power and control away and this could result in significant emotional and cultural harm to him. We trusted he wouldn’t expose himself to something he couldn’t do. And he didn’t. He found a way out that saved face amongst his friends and retained his cultural capital on the playground. He likely learned something about himself too, as did the community of children observing.
In this example we can see three girls balancing, looking carefully we can see just how each is in a different stage of competence and each is taking a different degree of care.
Over on the other side of the adventure playground…
The following two vignettes are very much focussed on aspects of risk taking, that might not normally be considered through the traditional risk management lens. These opportunities came about because the organisation (an adventure playground) was already set up to take account of children’s drive for uncertainty and responded by creating the conditions in which that could happen. So, children felt a sense of ownership over the space, and permission to follow their interests, they had control over what they did and how they did it.
The environment was designed in such a way that there were spaces where children could feel secluded, not only from being on display to other children but to feel outside of the gaze of the supervising adults. There was provision of equipment and resources big enough for older children to engage in socio-dramatic play, such as real furniture desk, beds, chairs, tables etc, as well as resources usually intended for the youngest children like buckets, spades, and small world resources. It was these conditions that supported the emergence of the following play episodes.
Then there’s the moving furniture story a story of socio-dramatic play that unfolded and extended over a fortnight. As a result of children’s increasing confidence with one another, the appropriate props, materials and resources helped develop their socio-dramatic play. They brought in narratives of home lives, parental practices, employment and work through a complex development of their play that exposed their feelings and saw them playing around with interpretation and response, risking so much personal disclosure to one another in their play but with clear benefits for all.
One day listening from the window of my upstairs office I heard a boy, of 13, who we knew to be at risk of spending a lifetime out of education and out of employment, already involved in criminal activity and at risk of serious engagement with the judicial system. On this day he was simply playing in a secluded sand pit, making roadways and tunnels just as you might imagine a much younger child doing. I poked my head out of the window and he turned to me and said, “look Ben, I’ve made a world.”
Because we recognised that children need a range of opportunities to play at and through various things, we had thought carefully about location, and privacy and defensible space so that children could play in the ways they needed. This child needed this opportunity, and he would never have risked that emotionally in a space more open to the greater playground population or the overt scrutiny of adults.
Take a risk on letting children play to their fullest
Risk and uncertainty are an integral part of play. To enable children to gain the full benefits of play we as adults have to take a risk on enabling the full range of play behaviours. The creation of uncertainty is woven through all forms of play and, when we fail to create the conditions for play in its fulness to happen, we diminish the value of play for children.
Allen, M. (1968). Planning for play. London: Thames & Hudson.
Ball, D.J. and Ball-King, L. (2014) Public Safety and Risk Assessment: Improving Decision Making. Routledge.
Burghardt, G. (2005) The genesis of animal play: Testing the limits. Cambridge MA: Mit Press.
Gordon, G. & Esbjorn-Hargens, S. (2007) Are we having fun yet? An exploration of the transformative power of play. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, Volume 47, pp.198-122.
Groos, K. (1901) The play of man. E. L. Baldwin, 1913 ed. New York: Appleton.
Lester, S. and Russell, W. (2008) Play For a Change: Play Policy and Practice. A review of contemporary perspectives. London: Play England.
Masten, A (2001) Ordinary Magic: Resilience processes in development, American Psychologist, 56 (3): pp. 227-238
Masten, A. & Obradovic, J. (2006) Competence and resilience in development. Annals of the New York Academy of Science, Volume 1094: pp. 13-27.
Pellegrini, A. D. (2009) The role of play in human development. New York: Oxford University Press.
Sandseter, E. B.H. (2007). Categorising risky play—how can we identify risk‐taking in children’s play?. European Early Childhood Education Research Journal, 15(2), 237-252.
Sandseter, E. B. H. (2010). It tickles in my tummy!. Understanding children’s risk-taking in play through Reversal Theory. Journal of Early Childhood Research, 8(1), 67-88.
Spinka, M., Newberry, R. and Bekoff, M. (2001) Mammalian Play: Training for the unexpected, The Quarterly Review of Biology, 76 (2), pp. 141-168.
Sutton-Smith, B. (1997) The Ambiguity of Play. London: Harvard University Press.