09 September, 2021 | Posted by Michelle Hogan

Tim Gill: How do you Achieve a Balanced Approach to Risk in Outdoor Play?

Tim Gill: How do you Achieve a Balanced Approach to Risk in Outdoor Play?

How do you achieve a balanced approach to risk for children in outdoor learning and play? What are the challenges we need to overcome and what role does design play in achieving this? 

Tim Gill is one of the creators of the 'Risk-Benefit Assessment' which is a tool that educators, designers and people who work with children in any capactiy use to help them to make a balanced decision about a programme, activity, piece of play equipment or space.

His book Urban Playground: How child-friendly planning and design can save cities was published by the Royal Institute of British Architects in 2021.

Speaking ahead of his upcoming webinar on risk in outdoor play, hosted by Portobello Institute's Early Years Department, Tim discussed the challenges and benefit of achieveing a balanced approach. 

Register now for our free upcoming webinar with Tim Gill on Monday, September 20th from 7 - 8 pm. An e-certificate of attendance will be issued to those who join on the night. 

What are the Challenges in Achieveing a Balanced Approach to Risk?

"They are mainly around adult anxieties, you can break those down a bit.

"Adult anxieties about being blamed or being sued, or being found to have been wrong or the fear of being blamed because you got something wrong, that looms large in educational settings. 

"Children live their lives more separately to adults more than 50 or 100 years ago so children grow up in reservations to a greater extent.

"Young children spend more time in childcare, in school, the length of the school day is growing and even outside of school more children are spending more time in structured activities, maybe with other children.

"The adult world and the children’s world are becoming significantly more separated over the generations, and I think that doesn’t help because you can believe this idea that children should be in special reservations all the time or the wider world is somehow dangerous or inappropriate.

"It can be scary for adults to allow children into or beyond these reservations.

"On the flip side, it is not only what children lose out on which is that understanding of the wider world but adults as well lose out because children become this slightly exotic creature.

"We are not used to seeing children out and about in neighbourhoods, younger children on their own maybe going to the shops and if they are it is seen as a sign of negligence.

"I think that Anglo-centric, in the US, UK and Ireland we are particularly prone to that world view that children shouldn’t be seen out and about in public spaces, not 100% there are some interesting currents going the other way but the Spanish or Italians who may be quite risk-averse, interestingly, as a culture they seem to be more accepting of the idea that there is a communal experience of childhood and it is good for children to be out in the wider world," he said.

How Do We Overcome These Challenges?

"I think we need to make visible all the good things that come along with a little bit of risk and a little bit of uncertainty and the bad things if we overprotect or interfere too much.

"Those things go hand in hand. I’m one of the creators of an approach called ‘Risk-Benefit Assessment’.

"At its simplest it’s a process for educators, designers and people whose lives affect children and where safety is in question to help those people to make a balanced decision about a programme, activity, piece of play equipment or space.

"Do I let the child climb trees? Do I let the child use a hammer and nails? It is a really simple set of questions but the first one is what are the good things that can happen if you allow this?

"You start with a clear understanding of what the benefits would be, especially the benefits for children.

"Then you say okay what are the risks? And you try to come up with a balanced response that addresses the risk, that is reasonable at managing the risks but also doesn’t throw out the benefits and that is risk-benefit assessment.

"There are now tools online, it is a well-established process, particularly in forest schools," he said. 

Read about Portobello Institute student Denise Sheridan's forest school here.

Pushing the Boundaries as a Practitioner

"At the heart of it is recognising children's agency and saying that children need this space, time and these kind of experiences. You are also using tools to expand the agency of the adults.

"You are saying to a teacher you don’t just have to be afraid, or just because someone said to you that egg boxes are really dangerous you can’t use them, don’t take that as gospel, have a think, do some research and think about how things might work in your setting.

"There are lots of examples where rather than saying no we can’t do that, have a think about it, consider what good things could happen, would we want to enable that to happen and how do we make sure in allowing this to happen children aren’t going to get seriously hurt?

"It is about taking reasonable steps and the idea of reasonable is central.

"Practitioners can vary too, we all know some of us are more cautious than others, some prefer indoor activities rather than outdoor ones, there are lots of cultural barriers, differences of view and debates but I think one of the wonderful things about this topic is that it is not difficult to have really interesting open, respectful discussions amongst practitioners, it really helps to move people along and because it is so intrinsically interesting," he said. 

Where Does Design Come Into Outdoor Spaces?

"I think outdoor spaces for children need to be naturalistic, they need to have nature, real nature; dirt, plants, water, slopes they need to feel the wind and the air.

"One of the great things about children is that they are much smaller than adults so it’s not that difficult to create a sense of nature.

"I remember my daughter’s nursery, for London it had a decent amount of outdoor space, there was one area that had four conifers, small bushy fir trees down at the far corner about 10 or 15 meters away from the porch and the children used to talk about going to the forest.

"I am also a big believer is loose parts, loose materials, stuff that kids can make stuff with. The grandmother’s attic approach to a play space where you bring in cardboard boxes, fabric, rope, traffic cones, old office equipment you need to be mindful of some of the hazard so obviously with rope you need to be mindful with that but there is some great practice around how much learning, self-discovery and exploration happens when you bring in loose parts into a play space.

"If a play space doesn’t look a little bit messy and unkempt, I think something is a little bit wrong. I think you really can make places too tidy, that doesn’t mean there is trash everywhere, to me messiness speaks to possibility and even a tiny bit of chaos, the edge of chaos that may be a step too far for some but possibility and an invitation for children to get playful and go where their imagination takes them and richness, a lot of different types of things would speak to children with different types of information," he said. 

Read more about Tim Gill's views on risk in outdoor play and why a balanced approach is needed here

Register now for our free upcoming webinar with Tim Gill on Monday, September 20th from 7 - 8 pm. An e-certificate of attendance will be issued to those who join on the night. 

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