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'Cotton wool children' given freedom to experience risky play

Article By: Melissa McAlees, News Editor

“If you over protect a child, they will never learn how to make mistakes,” claims Michelle Wisbey, principal of five Montessori pre-schools in Essex and Hertfordshire.

When most people think of the word ‘risk’, it is often confused with danger. Yet risks are a valuable way for children to learn skills in negotiating environments and learn about both positive and negative consequences of actions.

According to Maria Montessori, children have a natural desire to take risk, to challenge themselves and to weigh the risk against the benefit. They develop their own innate calculus that enables them to make their lives interesting and fulfilling. Without taking risk children cannot reach their full potential.

Yet, there still remains concern about how safety is being addressed in children’s play provisions. Fear of children harming themselves or others is leading many nursery providers to focus on minimising the risk of injury at the cost of an ‘exciting learning opportunity’.


Bright Horizons Family Solutions, which operates over 200 nurseries in the UK, incorporates the concept of risk at an early stage to ensure children develop behavioural safety instincts that stay with them for life.

Michelle Demirtas, workforce learning and development facilitator, says: “We know from research as well as from observing children at play that there are many benefits to encouraging and supporting children to engage in ‘risky play’, yet this concept continues to remain neither fully understood nor put into practice.

“Real play means taking risks physically, socially and cognitively. Whilst we would never put children in danger we believe that creating an environment where children do not have the chance to encounter some low level risks creates a different type of danger.

“A completely risk-averse environment means children are not able to practise risk-assessment, which enables them to match their skills with the demands of the environment. As a result, children can become reluctant to take any risks, whilst others have difficulty reading the situations they face and are unable to assess the level of risk which can be dangerous in itself.”


Modern worries and anxieties have led to a risk-averse culture that finds expression in overbearing health and safety policies which fail to weigh the benefits of a given activity against the risks involved. This, paired with the latest statistic that three-quarters of UK children are spending less time outside than prison inmates, led Leanna Barrett, founder of London’s first full-time outdoor nursery, Little Forest Folk, to give children the “outdoor experience they deserve.”

She said: “Practitioners are so eager to protect children, both from the love of the child and a fear of parental and legal repercussions that they are taking the safe option of minimising risk. Nobody wants a child to come to serious harm, but people are forgetting the learning opportunities in falling over and picking yourself back up again.

“We have such a risk averse society that we are wrapping our children in cotton wool to ensure they come to no harm. But this denies them the opportunity to develop. It is through natural risky play that children learn to assess risk and become independent and confident individuals.

“The best way nurseries can ensure children are exposed to risky play is to take them outside. Nature offers incredible opportunities for risky play. Practitioners also need to learn to trust the children. Even young children are far more capable of assessing and monitoring their own risk than we perceive.”


According to Peter Gray, research professor at Boston College and author of Free to Learn, children are highly motivated to play in risky ways, but they are also good at knowing their own capacities and avoiding risks they are not ready to take, either physically or emotionally.

His research points to the fact that children are more likely to injure themselves in adult-directed activities than in their own freely chosen, self-directed play. This is because adult encouragement and the competitive nature of activities lead children to take risks - both of hurting themselves and of hurting others - that they would not choose to take in free play.

Tops Day Nurseries believe ‘children should be children’ and provide them with endless opportunities to explore their surroundings, climb higher, reach further and develop their skills in a safe, creative play environment.

Throughout their nurseries children are able to learn how to use equipment safely whilst developing coordination and orientation skills; all by taking acceptable risks. This includes using bow saws, building shelters, crossing rivers, climbing trees, jumping over a small stream and building dens without adult interference.


A spokesperson for Tops Day Nurseries said: “When children are allowed to engage freely in adventurous play they quickly learn to assess their own skills and match them to the demands of the environment. If unsuccessful the first time, they tend to be resilient and rebound quickly; either trying again and again until they master the situation or wisely avoid it, whichever they choose is the best decision.

“If children aren’t encouraged to take risks they won’t be able to practice risk-assessment, a trait that will be used throughout their life. This could lead to children being timid and reluctant to try new things.”

Practitioners at Tops Day Nurseries have to distinguish acceptable and unacceptable risks by considering the likeliness and severity of harm against the benefits or outcomes of the activity.

By doing this, they are able to “provide managed risks that are engaging, developmentally appropriate and beneficial for children of all ages.”

Other nurseries, such as Bright Horizons, are turning to health and safety mascots as a pedagogical resource to embed a culture of behavioural safety during risky play.

Ms Demirtas added: “Our fundamental belief is that awareness and management of risk is a key life skill for children.

“Candy Floss, our health and safety mascot, is used by children in almost all of our nurseries throughout the UK and has also travelled overseas to join our nurseries in India.

“Created by the children, the mascot helps even the youngest learn how to make safe choices, risk assess and manage their own safety, which are all key skills and help set them up for a safe future. From using knives and cooking equipment safely, to crossing the road and washing hands, Candy Floss is present throughout the nursery day and helps children understand how they can stay safe both in nursery and at home.”


The children at Bright Horizons' nurseries also learn how to keep themselves and others safe by carrying out their own risk assessments using checklists and by taking photographs of potential hazards in their learning environment.

“Since introducing Candy Floss we have seen, and continue to see, children in our nurseries develop a genuine awareness of risk and safety,” said Ms Demirtas. “When children are given the freedom and encouragement to be adventurous they quickly develop the ability and confidence to assess their own skills and match them to the environment or the challenges they face.

“What we have learnt is that when allowed to manage their own challenges and risks children become more aware of themselves and their environment. Children who are confident about taking chances rebound well when things don't work out at first. They are resilient and will try again and again until they master a situation that challenges them or they will sometimes wisely avoid it, if that seems the best thing to do for them.”


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