Risky Play – in or out? A revival of experiential learning

Scarlett Eisenhauer (UCLA) and Dori Beeler (University of Durham)

Risky play is in… again! Or so some headlines would have us believe. A recent article by Ellen Barry (2018) describes “danger” intentionally left on a playground in England to allow children and youth to actively face risk and learn from that experience. The underlying theory being that if children cannot experience risk then they cannot learn to deal with it effectively on their own.

It reminded me of the popular Swedish story “Ronja, the Robbers Daughter” by Astrid Lindgren. As she grows, Ronja has to learn how to live in the forest. She has the following dialogue with her father before leaving her home castle to go learn (roughly translated):

Father: Beware of getting lost in the forest.

Ronja: What do I do, if I get lost in the forest?

Father: Then you look for the correct path.

Ronja: Well, then.

Father: And be careful not to fall into the river.

Ronja: What do I do, if I fall into the river?

Father: You swim.

Ronja: Well, then.

This dialogue continues for a while. Once Ronja is in the forest she scampers off only to actively look for these environmental realities, such as the river, so she can beware of it. The narrative in this story, read and watched in movie form by many children in Europe, reflects the narrative of the risky play “revival” by Barry – that in order to learn to deal with inherent risks in one’s environment, one must confront them, even as a child.

Work table at Summer camp including drills, hot glue guns, scissors and recycled materials.

For over 10 years I have been working at a summer camp which consistently insists that children need to try, experiment and just do. We’ve built fires for roasting stick bread, had a self-proclaimed ironworker set up his home smithy for older children (8-11) to try, and on nearly a daily basis children of all ages handled knives, hot-glue guns, and various other “dangerous” objects. Reading the article reminded me of the stark differences between two children I observed one summer:

  • While tinkering enthusiastically around with an imaginative apparatus, a kindergartener burned herself with the hot glue gun. I admit, after her proclamation of “ouch!” I jumped up to mediate the situation. About to go into protective “adult mode,” she intercepted: “It’s OK,” she said calmly peeling off the bit of drying glue, “I just need some cold water.” She went off to the sink deflecting any further help from me returning to her glue gun shortly after.
  • Set up at tables with bright colored papers, kindergarteners were cutting out fairly basic shapes to be used with another project. A boy was attempting to cut out a shape, but could not manipulate the scissors – nor could he move his hand holding the paper out of the way of the descending blades. Quite manipulative with other objects such as blocks and lego, this did not seem to be due to overall developmental progression. Rather he had no active time to learn to use sharp objects – even those designed specifically for children.

While accidents can and do occur, the girl with the glue gun was able to manage the situation in face of risk and some of its consequences, while the boy could not comprehend that his fingers should not be in the blades way (at least at the time). Even at young ages, the differences between exposure to risk seems apparent to me. Barry’s article ends with the following statement: “If they don’t have all that risk out there when the child is four, the adult isn’t going to do that.” While risk could still enter a child’s life later on, it seems pretty clear, according to Thomas Weisner and other researchers, that the activities children engage in on a routine basis and are valued by their surrounding community shape their developmental pathways and the kinds of skills, capacities, and norms they will come to embody (See Weisner 1998, Rogoff 2003 for some examples on this discussion).

But beyond my personal experiences and Barry’s argument, it is important that we can keep an active empirical discussion on the subject. The concept of “risk” itself and its role in our lives, and in this case play, is an assumption that is worth grappling with. As anthropologists, we have a lot to say on and add to the debate regarding what play constitutes developmentally useful play in a given society, and what role risk might play in the process. Some questions of interest may be, though not limited to:

  • Is risk something that children really do need to experience in order to be able to face risk later on in their life?
  • Is risky play a concern cross-culturally?
  • What are cultural variations regarding risk as it is clear that it is not uniform?
  • Are the opportunities to struggle valuable for child development?
  • Is risk something children desire in their play?
  • What kinds of risk are there, and which are detrimental/beneficial/acknowledged…?
  • How does navigating risk relate to resilience?
  • What kinds of risky play already exist in the USA? The revival of risky play seems to be imported to the USA from Europe, but what evidence do we have that there is an absence of risky play in the broader USA?

There are undoubtedly many more questions to be considered. In order to begin a discussion in a risky play module, we will explore the relation of risky play to resilience. We hope that others will join in this discussion by exploring and expanding on the other questions presented above.

Risky play and Resilience

In discussing the relevance of risky play, Barry refers to experts claims of its usefulness for building resilience during child development. It is, however, not clear if this appropriation of resilience is in relation to a renewed interest in the concept, or if there is a long-standing relationship. In a brief review of earlier reports (see for example The Atlantic.com[1] and NPR[2]), resilience has no mention at all in the research that is presented. Rather, there is much offered regarding a shift in childhood culture and how we got to this place of plastic play equipment and how statistically not much has changed in terms of the rate of injuries and deaths between 1980 (when the tide began to turn toward a safe playground) and today. This opens up the question of why play has become a focus for operationalizing risk in child development and just how navigating risk in the playground relates to resilience.

Resilience has been a subject of focus for child development scholars for over 50 years resulting in a broad and varied understanding that has the propensity to problematize discussions. For purposes of the discussion centered on risky play, resilience is perhaps best understood “in terms of the fact or process of approximating valued outcomes in the face of risk or adversity” (Kaplan 2005, 41). In other words, the idea of risky play is that by adding risk to the daily activities of children on the playground there is a set of outcomes that can be anticipated and are valued. On the other hand, “resilience is best understood as a process that unfolds over the course of development” (Panter-Brick and Leckman 2013, 333), which suggests that risky play is only one part of what constitutes the building of resilience in the course of a child’s development.

The effort of building resilience, it has been suggested, is ultimately focused on identifying the ways in which conditions of risk that children face are seen as a disruption to developmental processes (Felner 2005, 132). In the case of risky play, we are faced with an opposite correlate, where introducing conditions of risk are thought to promote – not disrupt – developmental processes. What stands out in Barry’s article and the resilience research is a polemic contextual variation. The risky play culture has been born out of the idea that childhood culture has become too protective, so much so that children lack the requisite psychosocial tools from which to thrive as adults. Whereas, the focus of resilience literature has predominantly been on contextualizing existing risk and a lack of protection that is understood to be a part of the everyday lives of children.

So, how are risky play and resilience related? In the case of childhood culture, it serves to remind us that in all things there are extremes that can go too far and finding a healthy balance is necessary; one that underscores the need to remain “attentive to normative definitions of what matters for human well-being” (Panter-Brick 2014).

References cited

Barry, E., 2018. In Britain’s Playgrounds, ‘Bringing in Risk’ to Build Resilience. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/10/world/europe/britain-playgrounds-risk.html.

Felner, R.D., 2005. Poverty in childhood and adolescence: a transactional-ecological approach to understanding and enhancing resilience in contexts of disadvantage and development risk. In: Goldstein S., Brooks R. (eds) Handbook of Resilience in Children. Springer, Boston, MA. Chapter 9, (pp. 125-148).

Kaplan, H.B., 2005. Understanding the concept of resilience. In: Goldstein S., Brooks R. (eds) Handbook of Resilience in Children. Springer, Boston, MA. Chapter 3, (pp. 39-47).

Panter-Brick, C., 2014. Health, risk, and resilience: Interdisciplinary concepts and applications. Annual Review of Anthropology43, pp.431-448.

Panter‐Brick, C. and Leckman, J.F., 2013. Editorial commentary: resilience in child development–interconnected pathways to wellbeing. Journal of child psychology and psychiatry54(4), pp.333-336.

Rogoff, Barbara. 2003. The Cultural Nature of Human Development. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Weisner, Thomas S. 1998. Human development, child well-being, and the cultural project of development. New Directions for Child and Adolescent Development, 80, pp. 69-85.

[1] https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/04/hey-parents-leave-those-kids-alone/358631/

[2] https://www.npr.org/sections/13.7/2018/03/15/594017146/is-it-time-to-bring-risk-back-into-our-kids-playgrounds