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Perceptions of risky play in early childhood education

Written by: Nicola Pearce
5 min read
NICOLA PEARCE, EARLY CHILDHOOD EDUCATOR, EDGE HILL UNIVERSITY, UK

Theoretical framework

Risky play in early childhood education is a concept that has seen a recent rise in popularity but remains a relatively new research area. Play is often defined as ‘risky’ based on the characteristics of where or how children play – at heights or with speed, for example – or based on the items with which they’re playing, such as tools (Goldenberg, 2021). Sandseter (2009) describes risky play as thrilling forms of play that involve a risk of physical injury, but suggests that few if any studies have been conducted to explore what specifically characterises play activities as such. Harper and Obee (2020) define risk taking as a behaviour which has an uncertain outcome with the potential for both loss and gain.

Research from Sando et al. (2021) and Lavryson et al. (2017) suggests that risky play is associated with children’s wellbeing as well as an improved ability to perceive and assess risk in day-to-day life. As children experiment with what their bodies can do, they gain confidence and intuition about what is and isn’t manageable and safe, leading to increased social interactions, creativity and resilience (Laryson et al., 2017).

Conceptual framework

The aim of this research was to consider the following questions:

  • How do early childhood educators understand ‘risky play’?
  • What value do early childhood educators place on risky play within early childhood education?
  • What impact could risky play have on early childhood education from the views of early childhood educators? 
  • How could schools better develop risky play practices holistically throughout early childhood education?

 

I gathered qualitative data through narrative and visual enquiry methods from a small sample of early childhood education professionals working in a diverse range of early childhood education settings and from a range of training and educational backgrounds.

Jucker and Von Au (2022) describe teaching and learning as multi-factorial processes of highly complex systems. Parameters include cultural and regional context, type of school, composition of class and school and class climate. For practitioners, these can include professional knowledge, leadership competencies, subject-specific knowledge and quality of teaching and teaching materials (Jucker and Von Au, 2022). The four practitioners chosen to participate in my research had commonalities yet differences in term of experience, employment demographic and the opportunities for training and development available to them. All research was conducted with sensitivity to participants and in line with the ethical processes of Edge Hill University and the British Educational Research Association guidelines (BERA, 2018).

Data was coded to interpret it in relevance to the initial research questions and to identify similarities, differences, patterns and themes. This was with the purpose of exploring how practitioners understand and experience risky play, the value they place on it, its impact if used in an educational context, and how schools could better develop risky play practices as part of positive holistic pedagogies (Goldenberg, 2021).

Summary and discussion of research findings

When discussing their experiences of risky play, the interviewees all cited using outdoor spaces as part of their risky play provision, and included activities such as climbing trees, playing in mud, making fires or building dens, noting how through these experiences children build essential life skills such as coordination, higher-level thinking and teamwork. These opportunities, however, did not routinely feature in day-to-day provision in the educators’ experiences.

An area in which the participants seemed to feel more comfortable was within distinct pockets of provision, such as Forest Schooling or outdoor educational trips. However, these opportunities posed a compartmentalised and commoditised form of provision, aside from day-to-day educational practice.

Behind this compartmentalisation there were concerns over safeguarding, health and safety implications and workload concerns in relation to paperwork, such as writing risk assessments. Other issues included the need for further conceptual and pedagogical understanding of risky play practices.

The importance of fellow practitioners was a common theme, and participants described the importance of being part of a team working towards shared goals. However, lack of training was cited as a barrier here. A data-driven demand by senior leadership and other stakeholders to raise standards in literacy and numeracy and to achieve high percentages at phonics screening and SATs was felt to create a desire to move learning indoors into a more formal setting. This went against the understanding that risky play and play-based outdoor pedagogies would lead to improved physical and cognitive skills and abilities, which could in turn raise standards.

There was a lack of understanding as to how risky play linked to policy and practice and the demands of the revised EYFS framework. Particularly for maths and literacy, the demands were described as being difficult to impact through play-based pedagogies. If children must be writing ‘readable by others’ sentences and captions by the end of the year in which they are five – an early learning goal from the EYFS statutory framework (DfE, 2023), then it is difficult to see how they can get there without working towards this goal in a more academic and formal manner, thus giving less space for gentler, slower pedagogies.

Despite this, all interviewees described some elements of risky play as currently being used positively as part of their everyday practice, and could see where it had potential to fit within the curriculum, particularly if they were trusted to view the early learning goals holistically and to focus on child-led/initiated methods of planning. The revised EYFS framework’s reduction in demands on data collection was described as having made a positive change to practice, allowing more time for child-led play.

Zhao and Watterston (2021) suggest that the idea of educating for a changing world is an important one, particularly following the COVID-19 pandemic. With an uncertain future ahead, scaffolded experiences of risk-taking throughout education could contribute to developing resilient and confident learners.

Conclusion

When considering risky play in early childhood education, there are many areas of broad agreement among practitioners. These include the right of a child to access developmentally stimulating play, the need for purposeful child-led play activities that build motor strength, control and dexterity, and the need for these previously compartmentalised areas of learning to be accessed more inclusively within a holistic programme of learning that develops the whole child and includes elements of health awareness, wellbeing and resilience building. Yet there remain challenges to implementation – for example, how early childhood educators encourage children’s engagement and how children are kept safe whilst experiencing this rich area of provision. These questions deserve further research, so that risky play pedagogies can be integrated as part of early childhood policy and practice.

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