Dr Jamie Galpin explores how we can support early years staff to embrace adventurous play…
The crucial role of play in children’s development is well understood. Play is a natural tool that children can use to build their resilience and coping skills.
The statutory framework for the EYFS in England notes that “play is essential for children’s development, building their confidence as they learn to explore, relate to others, set their own goals and solve problems.” (Department for Education, 2021)
However, this focus on play does not appear to last long; the paradoxical distinction between learning and play arises in the framework when it goes on to state: “as children grow older and move into the reception year, there should be a greater focus on teaching the essential skills and knowledge in the specific areas of learning.” (DfE, 2021)
By the age of five, playtime is over. Free play is harnessed and reined in to serve the needs of the curriculum. Play becomes planned, directed and structured, policed by policy.
Yet this conflicts not only with what we know about the value of play, but also with many practitioners’ beliefs about the value of free play.
Play is often at its most effective as a medium for learning because it allows children to freely indulge and follow that other foundational learning element: curiosity.
Free exploration promotes enhanced learning about the physical and social-emotional environment. We know too that the most compelling situations to explore and engage in are those that challenge our prior expectations. For example, think about how much children (and adults!) are drawn to magic tricks.
Testing expectations, exploring boundaries and learning about their own capacities through making mistakes, are some of the hallmarks of what is termed ‘adventurous’ or ‘risky’ play.
This is child-led play where children experience feelings of excitement and fear. These thrilling forms of play are characterised by uncertainty. Yes, they can have the potential for cuts and grazes, but they also provide opportunities to develop persistence and resilience.
However, societal norms have shifted toward greater supervision, and concerns regarding injury prevention are increasingly influencing children’s opportunities to engage in risky play. Risks constantly have to be managed and regulated by adults. Of course we must carry out risk assessments and keep children safe from harm, but children also need opportunities for adventure.
Restricted opportunities are heightened for children with special educational needs and disabilities. All children are perceived to be vulnerable; those with SEND even more so.
Risks are located within the child rather than our recognition that we could be wrapping our own anxieties around the children in our care. Yet, in the long term we might be increasing the vulnerability of the children we are looking to protect.
Fewer opportunities to engage with risky play leads to fewer opportunities to not only manage risk, but also to manage the uncertainty that accompanies it.
Uncertainty is a fundamental difficulty all humans experience. It is the foundational component of all anxiety. The vast majority of us are desperately seeking certainty. We explore and learn about our world so we can build a better model of it, one that can help us make good guesses about what will happen; making things predicable, expected.
Uncertainty is woven into the tapestry of life. We need to be able to manage this truth, and play is one of the best teachers to help us achieve this. Play is training for the unexpected.
Exploration and novelty-seeking allow us to harvest information about the unknown, about the edges and horizons, and improve our knowledge and understanding. Adventurous play can, over time, reduce children’s uncertainty by increasing their ability to predict events in the world.
Having the opportunity through play to successfully handle lower-stakes uncertainty, physiological arousal, and fear, is thought to give children an adaptive coping template and increased capacity to manage uncertainty and more realistic interpretations of physiological arousal in the future.
Despite all these benefits, we are often constrained in how much we can allow adventurous free play. Rules bind both children and adults. Not just the practical rules designed to minimise risk, but rules in the form of policy. For example, play is being increasingly squeezed out of the school day so that ‘learning’ can take priority (Fisher, 2021).
Yet children become confident, involved learners by taking calculated risks and dealing with uncertainty, whereby learning and development occur through encountering challenges, and building the resources to deal with them.
To make more space for risky play, we need to embrace a little uncertainty ourselves. We need to know when to trust children to effectively navigate an uncertain moment. In doing so we might need to re-negotiate typical adult and child relations, revisiting policies and procedures.
We need to reacquaint ourselves, and be comfortable, with the positive aspects of child-led risky play. This will be an ongoing dialogue rather than a one-off conversation.
We might begin by playing with the rules. The International School in Billund, Denmark, did just that. Staff relaxed playground rules (for example, children could go up the slide!) giving pupils more freedom in how they used the playground.
Whilst the school recognised the tensions around relaxing the rules, and their duty of care to the children, ongoing discussions and negotiations among staff, and with children – supported by strong documentation of reasoning and risk considerations – helped them to walk that tightrope.
Reflecting on the first week of the new, sparser rules, they found they had “happier children” and fewer incidents (Baker & Benavente Barbon, 2017).
Dr Jamie Galpin is a Developmental Psychologist and Education Officer at nasen. He is the co-author of The Anxiety Workbook for Supporting Teens Who Learn Differently: A Framework and Activities to Build Structural, Sensory and Social Certainty.
Jamie is currently working with the LEGO Foundation on their Play for All Accelerator Programme. The programme combines the LEGO Foundation’s expertise in learning through play with nasen’s principles of inclusion. For further information, visit: learningthroughplay.com
Baker, M. & Benavente Barbon, M. (2017). Too Many Rules on the Playground: Working the Paradox between Safety and Freedom.
Department for Education (2021). Statutory framework for the early years foundation stage.
Dodd, H. F., Nesbit, R. J., & FitzGibbon, L. (2022). Child’s Play: Examining the Association Between Time Spent Playing and Child Mental Health. Child Psychiatry & Human Development, 1-9.
Fisher, J. (2021). To play or not to play: teachers’ and headteachers’ perspectives on play-based approaches in transition from the Early Years Foundation Stage to Key Stage 1 in England. Education 3-13, 1-13.
Nesbit, R. J., Bagnall, C. L., Harvey, K., & Dodd, H. F. (2021). “Perceived Barriers and Facilitators of Adventurous Play in Schools: A qualitative systematic review.” Children, 8(8), 681.