Tim Gill: Risk in Outdoor Play and Why a Balanced Approach is Needed

Tim Gill: Risk in Outdoor Play and Why a Balanced Approach is Needed
09 Sep 2021

A balanced approach is needed when assessing risk in outdoor play for children in order to ensure they have access to a broad diet of healthy childhood experiences.

This is according to scholar, writer and consultant on childhood, and a global advocate for children’s play and mobility, Tim Gill. 

He 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 learning and play, hosted by Portobello Institute's Early Years Department, Tim Gill discussed what having a balanced approach to risk means and why it can be a challenge. 

"Most people care a lot about children and our emotional response for children generally is very good.

"It can be a moving relationship and an emotional relationship and I think that’s important but I think sometimes we can become too emotional and we can become too bound up in emotions of bringing up a child, teaching a child or worrying that a child is going to get hurt.

"There is a part of my work which is about inviting people to take a step back from that and reflect on our emotional responses and feelings about children.

"It became very clear to me that playground safety is a very emotive topic when you are talking about children getting seriously hurt, we can very quickly become lost in our emotions. I’m not saying it’s wrong to get upset but I think it’s important that we move on from those emotions.

"Yes, a child can get hurt in a playground but let’s look first of all at the good things that happen when children play and the fact that part of the benefits of play is precisely children being able to run, encounter uncertainty, have challenges, find out what they can do and how far they can climb. 

"Also, let’s place the risk in context and remind ourselves that playground injuries are rare, there are actually other things that are much more dangerous in children’s lives and we need to weigh up the risks and the benefits," he said. 

What Are The Risks in Outdoor Play?

"If you say there is a risk something might go wrong, all you are doing is saying there is some uncertainty, it is not guaranteed, there is not an absolute safety but there is also not an absolute threat.

"So in a playground, a child might get hurt if they are climbing on a piece of equipment, ultimately, we are not going to say that no child should be able to play in a playground so already we understand that we need to live with risks, we can’t eliminate risks.

"It is particularly important for children to be able to have encounters with uncertainty because children learn a great deal from their own efforts and their own mistakes.

"It’s one of the reasons we are the dominant species on the planet is because of our incredible adaptive abilities. We have the ability to adapt to environments, environmental threats and situations to a far greater extent than almost any other species. A lot of that comes down to how incredibly efficient the young of our species are at learning.

"If we try too hard to take out that uncertainty, remove all the risk, we are starving children of the oxygen that actually feeds their learning and growth.

"That is the heart of the argument around over-protecting children, we paradoxically leave them worse off.

"For young children, opportunities for outdoor play are particularly valuable because there is a sense of expansiveness, places, especially natural places, have more possibilities.

"There is more variability, which is interesting, children love places that change with the seasons or change with the weather, where there is stuff that they can do things with, loose materials is the term sometimes used.

"All of that adds up to a very rich learning environment but a learning environment where there is a lot of uncertainty.

"I’m not saying we let children go, push them into the woods aged three and say come back when you’re hungry but there is a balance, there is a job for adults, we need to ask ourselves what could go wrong and what can we do to stop things from going wrong?

"In asking those questions we also need to keep in mind the benefits, the value of climbing that tree, digging that hole and that also goes for emotional risks.

"I think it is interesting that children’s play is often very emotionally heightened, they get very excited then they get very upset.

"It’s the same thinking we need to recognise that children’s emotional landscape is also something that they need to learn.

"They need to learn how to deal with criticism, or aggression or someone else getting distressed, they need to understand the consequences of their own behaviours or what happens if they get too angry.

"There is the same need for a balanced approach, an approach that gives children some space and time but also doesn’t abandon them," he said.

If You Achieve a Balanced Approach to Risk, What Does That Do For the Child?  

"Children like being slightly frightened, there is a researcher Ellen Sandseter who is a Norweigen researcher in Early Childhood who is a well-known expert on risky play and she talks about the sort of scary-funny feeling, the butterflies in the stomach that any parent or educator can recognise. 

"Children like and seek out thrilling experiences, running fast, spinning round and around, being at a height, getting lost and hiding. Those are intrinsically engaging experiences for children and so we should be paying attention to why that is?

"What is it about these experiences that place children in a little bit of danger? What makes them so attractive?

"I think the answer lies in that adaptive, exploratory, adventurous spirit that children have.

"Respecting that nature and those qualities in children, you can see how it helps on that journey of childhood.

"I think we all want children to grow up to be confident people, to be engaged people, who are aware of the world and people around them and relate to them, who are responsible people who understand the consequences of their action and people who have a sense of their own agency, psychologists call it self-efficacy.

"This idea that I am somebody who can find a path in the world, can literally and figuratively make my way.

"I sometimes talk about giving children a taste of freedom or getting the hang of being a human being. That’s where I think these experiences are so important.

"I am not the first or last person to philosophise about play and I think that there is a sort of romantic conception of play that goes back to Russo, that all children need to do is to play, and I am not saying that.

"I think what matters is that children have some space and time where they feel like they are in control. That they are calling the shots, that they are doing what they’re doing because it’s intrinsically interesting and engaging to them at that moment, not because they are getting some external rewards or because adults told them to do it," he said.

Read our next article for more from Tim on the challenges associated with achieving a balanced approach to risk in outdoor play. 

Register now for our upcoming webinar on Monday, September 20 from 7 - 8 pm featuring Tm Gill.

Read More: Outdoors In Early Years - Underpinning STEAM Concepts The Natural Way

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