Why Risk Is An Essential Element of Childrens Play

We live in an age of ‘cotton wool kids’ and ‘helicopter parenting’, where children often have every minute of their days scheduled full of activities and after school clubs. Children have so little free time, and with the Government talking about lengthening the school days and shortening the holidays, they could end up with even less. When they are let out to play, parents fret and worry about their children’s safety and discourage their children from climbing too high, or swinging too fast, or getting too dirty.

In recent years however, many commentators, child psychologists and educators have been questioning the value of this ‘cotton wool’ approach to raising children. Experts have been stressing the importance of free play, and specifically play that involves an element of risk and danger, for healthy child development. Incorporating the right level of risk is an essential part of good playground design.

Risk in Playground Design

The key to a successful playground is ensuring the right balance between risk and safety. If a playground is too safe, if there is no risk involved, it simply won’t be appealing to children. Risk is important on many levels for children: it helps them to solve problems, to develop decision making skills, to challenge themselves physically and to overcome fears and anxieties. These are skills that are absolutely essential in life and learning, indeed play is how children learn about the world. As Albert Einstein said, “Play is the highest form of research.”

Good Risk and Bad Risk

Learning how to assess the level of risk posed by a certain situation, as children do when negotiating the calculated ‘dangers’ built into good playground equipment, is a life-long skill. Not all risk, however, is good risk. The positive elements of risks offered by playground equipment such as monkey bars, climbing structures, and balance beams are not the same at all as the risks posed by unsafe, damaged or broken playground equipment. Good risks offer high play value, whereas risks presented by cracked or broken equipment, hard surfaces, and sharp edges, etc. have no play value in themselves.

Risk and Safety

While risk is definitely important for good playground design, children’s safety must remain paramount. This means ensuring playgrounds are built from weather proof, durable materials that won’t fall apart or become easily damaged. Surfaces should not be too hard and should always be properly pinned down; gaps in equipment should be sized so as to avoid trapping fingers, arms or heads.

Inquiring Minds

Safe playscapes, with open ended play structures with high play value, are crucial for a successful playground. Children have inquiring minds, and it is important to allow them to engage with play equipment in experimental and creative ways. Calculated risk is a key element of this. Embracing the benefits of risk, rather than obsessively avoiding it, will help our children develop strong problem solving skills, make value judgements and work out for themselves how to become masters of their own environment.

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