Risky Business

By Julia Fleming (Case Western Reserve University)

Imagine an expansive outdoor space dedicated solely to child’s unadulterated play. It is by no means contemporary or state of the art: it is just a portion of hilly, muddy land with a small stream running through it, confined by a tall wooden fence. An abundance of objects intended for the entertainment of children are scattered around. These objects, however, are not the typical objects you would think of when you think of outdoor children’s play. They are unconventional, seemingly random items, ranging from metal shelters, to an old rowboat, to cardboard, to manikins, and much more. This space exists in Wales, and it is called The Land. It is one of the hundreds of “adventure playgrounds” that can be found throughout the United Kingdom and Europe.  A group of filmmakers found interest in this specific adventure playground, decided to make a documentary about it, and aptly named “The Land”. This film offers an intimate perspective on the spontaneous, risky play that is encouraged at the playground.

(Bognar, Reichert, & Davis, 2015)

It also addresses many stimulating issues, such as “What should play be?” and “Is risk necessary for a child’s development?” The film made me reconsider what I previously thought about risk in child’s play. It helped me realize that personally, I think children are very protected, perhaps too protected, when it comes to play, risk, and exploration here in the United States, and that this should change.

At The Land, children roam free and interact with whatever is interesting to them. It is staffed by adults, deemed “play workers”, whose jobs are to provide the children with what they would like to play with and supervise the children. They are just there to supervise; rarely do they intervene with the children’s play, even when it seems risky. While watching The Land, one question that struck me was this: at what point would a play worker stop play that seemed too risky or dangerous?

(Bognar, Reichert, & Davis, 2015)

My question was answered later in the documentary when a play worker named Dave spoke about his view on children taking risks: “Risks and hazards are different things.” Dave explained that a risk is something that a child chooses to interact with, such as deciding to play with fire; a hazard is something that the child is unaware of, such as stepping on a nail that had fallen on the ground. There was one instance where a girl alerted Dave about another child who was climbing a tree and in her opinion, it was too dangerous. Instead of telling the boy to get down from the tree, Dave simply said, “Steve, that branch is pretty thin… just thought I’d share that with you,” and he tried to guide him with suggestions instead of commands. Later in the film, Dave was also quoted saying, “Even when you feel uncomfortable with what’s going on, that’s not what should inform your next move … It’s important for adults to know that not everything they see is going to make them feel happy and comfortable.” I liked this because I often find myself being too cautious when caring for children. Over the summer, when I’m not in school, I’m a nanny for one family. When I reflect on that, I realize that I often try to steer the kids away from activities that could potentially be risky. Am I depriving the kids from opportunities to fully learn and explore via risk taking? I definitely think watching this film and hearing what the play workers had to say about risk will help me be more open when deciding what is acceptable for the children to do.

A study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health by Brussoni et al. (2012) suggests that a balance of risky yet non-hazardous play is what children need. The article claims that the adventure playground movement taking off in Europe (especially the U.K.) and Australia, effectively fosters this ideology of encouraging risky play. Meanwhile, Brussoni et al. note that North America is particularly lacking in opportunities for children to experience risk in a controlled environment where hazards are limited, supporting my own perceptions of child play in the US lacking freedom (Brussoni et al. 2012).

Is risk something children necessarily need to experience? I believe that risk taking in childhood greatly enhances inventiveness and maturity, and positively affects development in general. I don’t think that a child who grows up without taking risks will be negatively affected necessarily, however I do feel that children who grow up taking risks will have an upper hand when it comes to their ability to make the most of their creativity throughout life. An article written by clinical psychologists Nancy Eppler-Wolf and Susan Davis (2009) backs up these beliefs of mine. In the article, Eppler-Wolf and Davis state: “Risk-taking is a key developmental concept, and parents need to understand its significance as a teaching experience for children. Through parents’ modeling, nurturing and teaching good risk-taking skills, children will be better prepared to meet life’s challenges.” (Davis and Eppler-Wolf 2009: 2). Anthropologist David Lancy has a similar stance. He feels that one current trend of our generation- over-parenting– is adversely affecting children. In his book, “Raising Children: Surprising Insights from Other Cultures”, Lancy states: “New ways of child-rearing can leave many as kidults, ill-prepared to enter a complicated, adult world” (Bhattacharya 2017).

(Bognar, Reichert, & Davis, 2015)

All in all, I think it is important for adventure playgrounds such as The Land to expand to places where they are nonexistent such as North America. These playgrounds provide children with chances to learn from experience and to understand the consequences of their actions. As one of The Land play workers, Claire, puts it, “Children have to learn how to manage their own risks.” She admits that it is hard as a parent to allow your child to take risks, but asserts that risk is a necessity in a young child’s life.

The film The Land was a great documentary in my opinion, and I would highly recommend it to anyone wanting new insight into risk in child’s play. However, I think it would have been interesting if they touched upon some of the downsides, or potential hazards of risky play. I also think some comparing and contrasting between children who play in the adventure playgrounds versus children who don’t have access to adventure playgrounds would be a nice addition, and would potentially give more answers to the question of which type of play is ‘better’, if either.

Lastly, I will end with a few questions open for discussion: what type of play do you feel is better, and why? Is risky play too dangerous for children, or does it help empower them and encourage their creativity? Why haven’t adventure playgrounds made their way into other areas of the world, especially the United States?

References Cited

Bhattacharya, S. (2017, October 11). Time to get under-involved with the kids. Retrieved from https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg23631471-000-time-to-get-underinvolved-with-the-kids/

Bognar, S. (Co-producer), Reichert, J. (Co-producer), and Davis, E. (Director). (2015). The Land. United States: New Day Films.

Brussoni, Mariana, Lise L. Olsen, Ian Pike, and David A. Sleet. “Risky Play and Children’s Safety: Balancing Priorities for Optimal Child Development.” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 9, no. 9 (2012): 3134-148. doi:10.3390/ijerph9093134.

Davis, Susan, and Nancy Eppler-Wolff. Raising Children Who Soar: A Guide to Healthy Risk-taking in an Uncertain World. New York: Teachers College Press, 2009.