THE EXTINCTION OF RISKY PLAY?
The desire to explore and play in a way that involves an element of risk is no new phenomenon and is, arguably, an innate human trait.
But is it close to extinction?
FROM JUNK TO ADVENTURE
Danes are known for progressive thinking and this extends to how we view childhood and raising kids. Danish architect Carl Theodor Sørensen pioneered some of the first risky playgrounds - “Skrammellegepladser” or Junk Playgrounds, when he noticed during World War II that kids were playing everywhere but conventional playgrounds.
Forget fenced-in, protected playgrounds wrapped in primary colours — kids were provided the materials and tools to essentially build their own playground out of bricks, wood and other waste materials. The concept was picked up on by British landscape architect Lady Marjory Allen, who created over 35 so-called Adventure Playgrounds in the 1960s and 1970s lead by the motto "better a broken bone than a broken spirit”.
"Children's playgrounds are the city's most important form of public plantation.”
CARL THEODOR SØRENSEN
Source: "Categorizing Risky Play – how can we identify risk-taking in children’s play?" - Ellen B. H. Sandseter
WHAT IS RISKY PLAY?
There is, of course, a difference between risk and hazards - we’re not advocates of dangerous recklessness but rather of controlled risk-taking in a safe environment, where kids explore their surroundings and challenge themselves. No child wishes to get hurt and they are remarkably capable of gaging their abilities and dosing themselves with just the right amount of fear and risk for them individually.
Experts have identified up to nine categories of controlled risk in play and we have focussed on the six categories defined by Ellen B. H. Sandseter, professor at Queen Maud University College of Early Childhood Education. The six types are:
- 1. Play with great heights (eg. climbing trees)
- 2. Play with high speed (eg. running down hills)
- 3. Play with tools (eg. whittling with knives)
- 4. Play near dangerous elements (eg. water and fire)
- 5. Rough-and-tumble play (eg. play fighting)
- 6. Play where the child can ”disappear”/get lost (eg. in tall grass)
LABS OF EXPLORATION
Exploratory, challenging play in which kids practice risk appraisal contributes to kids building resilience, coping skills, and autonomy. Risky play nurtures the development of body and spatial awareness as kids test the possibilities and limitations of their bodies and their environment. They learn to face and overcome fear and win their own victories - big or small. Simultaneously, children are developing social-emotional skills as they are faced with handling change, uncertainty, and even disappointment when things don't turn out the way they had expected. Risk-promoting playgrounds are essentially labs of hands-on exploration for kids as they experiment and learn within a controlled environment.
“Bruises are seen as how you experience life. You fall, you get up.”
HEIDI VIKKELSØ NIELSEN
Danish Lecturer in Education
RISKY PLAY = THE SAFER WAY
A study comparing innovative London playgrounds to traditional US playgrounds showed that the innovative playgrounds, which often sported play features that encouraged risky play, outperformed their traditional counterparts across the pond on several fronts. They were found to attract many more visitors; encourage more moderate-to-vigorous physical activity; attract a greater percentage of adults and seniors; and offer a wider variety of play features than the matched US playgrounds, which are often limited in design and play opportunities due to the fear of litigation. Studies have also concluded that children, who are accustomed to risk-taking and assessing their capabilities in free play are less likely to sustain injuries when engaging in organized sports due to a higher awareness of themselves and their physical capabilities.
The concept of risk is, naturally, subjective. For some kids, risk-taking will mean jumping down from the highest possible point without a second thought - for others, they prefer to stay close to the ground, assessing their own abilities and threshold for risk and fear. What is essential is that children lead the play in an environment that encourages imaginative play, movement, and controlled risk-taking as they learn to gradually take responsibility for their own safety.
BECOME PART OF OUR DARING ADVENTURES
At MONSTRUM, we often say that kids become the main characters in their own adventures at our playgrounds as they unlock their imaginations and test their boundaries in a world, where they are co-creators. They jump from higher than they thought they could, leap further than they imagined, take the big slide that used to scare them - triumphing over their fears or - equally important - falling down and getting back up again for another go! Resilience is built and a sense of self-worth and confidence is strengthened as kids take challenges on head-first - experiencing both success and failure in a controlled environment.
A good playground should inspire kids to move. The swing and the climbing frame are classic playground elements, where you can feel a sense of joy and a tickle in your stomach just from looking at it. But what makes a playground great is when kids are not able to figure it out at first glance.
They have to explore it.
When they are running or climbing through the playground, there is no one correct way of navigating. They have to consider various options and paths, assessing their motor skills and safety. This creates continuous movement and leads to a lot of fun. A playground is an essential part of childhood, inspiring and reflecting the challenges of the physical world.
A PLACE FOR ADVENTURE... AND TO GET LOST!
"Lilidorei...embodies everything that childhood is meant to be about."
Lilidorei is a prime example of how we incorporate opportunities for risky play into the design of our playgrounds. Its tall towers connected by an extensive network of bridges and tunnels make it the perfect place to explore...and get lost! Taking one of the huge tube slides down is also a hair-raising experience for the bigger kids but there are challenging elements for all ages and abilities. Psychologist Emma Kenny paid the huge play village in Northumberland, England a visit during installation and made the following observations:
"When children indulge in unstructured activities and allow their imaginations to run wild, research suggests they become more resilient and able to self-soothe and self-regulate their emotions, contributing to future success in life. Lilidorei is great/fantastic/astonishingly beautiful for kids because it embodies everything that childhood is meant to be about. It’s about testing fears, doing it in a safe environment but also never losing sight of the magic of childhood, because it’s fleeting, it’s momentary and it’s also so profoundly important - where divergent thinking, creativity and imagination is formed."
EMMA KENNY, PSYCHOLOGIST
SEE MORE about the Lilidorei project