Compare, now, your childhood play experiences with those of today’s children. This is not an invitation to analyse them, but simply to enjoy some moments of recall. Consider the limitations placed upon children, by us, adults.
Tim Gill, in his article, ‘The shrinking horizon of childhood’, (www.teachingtimes.com/articles/shrinking-childhood.htm) identifies some of the ways in which adult preconceptions and anxiety-laden concerns – and heaps of notionally useful guidance - distort adults’ capacity to respond to children’s play needs and wants in a meaningful way.
What then, needs to be done about play, so far as schools are concerned? A starting point might be to think of the task as a philosophical exercise, or an exploration into the meaning of key terms that are regularly used to identify the qualities and abilities children need to develop, to enjoy their childhood and to grow into fully-rounded adults. The following are the key terms in my view:
Resilience (Chambers Dictionary: ‘recoil, elasticity, physical or mental’). That is, the capacity to bounce back after difficulty, hurt, ‘negative’ experience. You cannot become resilient in the absence of something to be resilient about. What follows from this? It is that accidents, cuts and bruises are not necessarily bad, they are of potential benefit. School policy directed simply at the reduction of risk is potentially damaging to children.
Challenge (Chambers Dictionary: ‘to test one’s powers and capabilities to the full’) That is, to push against boundaries (physical and mental); to be thwarted; to try again; to fail; to be resilient in response to difficulty.
Put a good, brave face on (it) (Chambers Dictionary: ‘to assume a bold or contented bearing’) See resilience and challenge.
Rain (Chambers Dictionary: ‘water from the clouds in drops’) That is, a natural element commonly described as ‘wet’. Experience appears to demonstrate that children do not melt in the rain, indeed often enjoy playing in it.
Wet Play (Chambers Dictionary: no entry) The term not infrequently used to describe a non-play, non-wet time spent within the school building watching through glass rain delivered wetness. Period likely to induce condensation within building, and minds and hearts of children and staff.
Accidents (Chambers Dictionary: ‘that which happens’) Sometimes painful, most usually the cause of no lasting harm. The inevitability and utility of accidents not generally acknowledged. Obsessive attempts to reduce or prevent accidents logically inconsistent with policy goal of nurturing resilience and ‘stretching’ children through challenge (see above).
Experience (Chambers Dictionary: ‘wisdom derived from the changes and trials of life’) Generally understood as the necessary, inevitable, unavoidable vehicle for developing qualities of, for example, self-confidence, resilience, curiosity. Those qualities generally understood as un-teachable, the focus being on creating the context within which those qualities might be nurtured.
Learning through experience (Chambers Dictionary: no entry) Learning and ‘wisdom derived from the changes and trials of life’. These experiences include, but are not limited to, climbing higher today than yesterday; having an argument and resolving or not resolving it; falling over and discovering that pain generally passes and can in any case be overcome.
Risk (Chambers Dictionary: ‘chance of loss or injury’) Logically, prior to having a new experience, you cannot know how you will respond. The moment prior to having a particular experience – for example, climbing higher today than yesterday; having an argument and resolving or not resolving it; falling over and discovering that pain generally passes and can in any case be overcome - is, therefore, by definition, a risky moment . It follows that if schools want to nurture self-confident, resilient children who respond to, set themselves and overcome challenges, risk needs to be embraced, provided for, not avoided or always minimised.
What constitutes an ‘acceptable level of risk’ is another question. In general terms, an acceptable level of risk is one that opens the door to the benefits of having a range of experiences.
It will be seen that all this has a bearing on worries about negligence. The law on negligence revolves around the question of ‘what is reasonable in the circumstances’. If a school has a formal play policy articulating the view that it has a duty to offer children risk in order to access the benefits that this can give, then risk cannot and should not be eliminated. Risk, in other words, is a gateway to learning the necessary, but unteachable. No school is in the business of limiting the benefits it offers to children. To attempt eliminating or reducing risk could, in itself, be a harm inducing practice.
Risk-averse schools cannot meet their key objectives. Policy and practice need to be aligned to nurture risk-taking opportunities.
Will schools risk it?
For authoritative legal opinion on risk, play and policy go HERE