Since the turn of the last century, advocates for children’s active play have continued to voice concern for the welfare of children whose childhood lacks play opportunities, especially active outdoor play. Think back to your own childhood, how would you characterize your childhood? Would you consider it an indoor childhood or an outdoor childhood? Did you have many hours of unstructured play outside? Did you take risks? Do you remember what it was like to engage in risky play? Now think about the children you know now. Do they have these same opportunities?
There has been a flurry of publications about the importance of risky play from researchers across the globe. Among early childhood advocates, educators and researchers, there is a risky play movement. The aim of this movement is not to promote unsafe practice; rather, it is to help others recognize the benefits of this type of play far outweigh the risks to children. It seems like every day another blog is published that aims to broaden our understanding of the topic. When the history of the risky play movement is written, the following blogs may prove to be significant in the advancement of the movement.
Adrian Voce (2016) argues that ‘risky play’ is an ambiguous, contradictory term, open to misinterpretation and the whole question of how risk is managed and promoted is now tending to overshadow and distort some of the wider issues around children’s right to play. The dictionary defines an adventure as ‘an unusual and exciting or daring experience’, as well as ‘the excitement associated with danger or the taking of risks’. Its main synonyms are ‘exploit’, ‘escapade’, ‘deed’ and ‘feat’. Adventurous is defined as ‘willing to take risks or to try out new methods, ideas, or experiences … full of excitement’. Its synonyms are ‘audacious’, ‘bold’, ‘courageous’, ‘enterprising’, and, yes, ‘risky’. Risk on the other hand is defined as ‘a situation involving exposure to danger; the possibility that something unpleasant or unwelcome will happen; a person or thing regarded as a threat or likely source of danger. Its main synonyms are ‘chance’, ‘uncertainty’, ‘danger’, ‘threat’ and ‘menace’. Risky is defined as ‘full of the possibility of danger, failure, or loss’, with synonyms, ‘dangerous’, ‘high-risk’, ‘hazardous’, ‘unsafe’, ‘precarious’ and ‘dodgy’. Voce states that “it is not pedantic to want to find and use words that best describe what is being done and why” because language matters. He advocates against using the term ‘risky play’. https://policyforplay.com/2016/06/08/the-trouble-with-risky-play/?fb_action_ids=10154040579166609&fb_action_types=news.publishes
Ellen Sandseter (2016) responds with her blog, Risky play? Adventurous play? Challenging play? To say that in Norway there is no problem using the concept of risky play in the common language and the disagreement about terminology might be the result of different cultures and languages. While risky play and risk-taking have both positive and negative associations, Sandseter believes that we shouldn’t cover what we mean with softer words to make it JUST positive (and more acceptable for some groups). The meaning of the term should ALSO include the possibility of a negative outcome – since the fear of this outcome is the reason we have all the restrictions and surplus safety in the first place. https://ellenbeatehansensandseter.com/
Kim Allsup (2016) has written a blog with the headline Please Don’t Say You Allow Your Child to Take Risks that states that “Risk management” is a bizarre phrase to use in relation to children because it is a concept originally developed for the insurance industry. She suggests that we should be minimizing risk rather than managing risk because children can be confused. Risky means dangerous so a child might interpret that it is okay to take chances and it is too risky to use the word “risk” when communicating with children about challenging activities. Emphasizing the word “risk” shows that we have the mindset of the helicopter parent who is more aware of danger than adventure, more focused on what could go wrong than how to prepare children to be both independent and safe in challenging situations. Rather than talk about risks, she suggests we use the words adventure, preparation and trust. https://childrengrowing.com/2016/06/08/please-dont-say-you-allow-your-child-to-take-risks/
Tim Gill (2016) supports the use of the “R word” and suggests that the acceptance of risk is not just a detail: it is the single most important step to help get those who are anxious about the word to take. Using the word ‘risk’ is of value precisely because it faces head-on the possibility of adverse outcomes. Avoiding the word ‘risky’ and instead using ‘adventurous’ or ‘challenging’ is according to Gill like having our cake of uncertainty and eating it. The implied message is ‘your child will have adventures – but don’t worry, nothing will go wrong.’ https://rethinkingchildhood.com/2016/06/15/risk-uncertainty-adverse-outcomes-play/
We are in the midst of a risky play movement or even a risky play revolution and the language is being developed. As a professional, early learning teachers choose words carefully to meet the intended audience and context. Being aware of the discussions, controversy and thinking around the terms risky, adventurous and challenging builds knowledge that influences both philosophy and practice during outdoor play.
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