Lack of play harms children's development

Access to playgrounds is becoming more difficult, but 'risky play' could be key to a child's development
16 August 2022

Interview with 

Samantha Brown, New Ark & Lily Fitzgibbon, University of Stirling & Robert Dighton, ELHAP


Adventurous play


That last point Helen made, about children being given the freedom to use play areas whenever, and in whatever way they see fit, is central to this next part of the programme. That’s because we’re going to be talking about adventurous or risky play.

For those not entirely familiar with those terms, all will soon be made clear. I was lucky enough to be able to visit a special facility here in Cambridgeshire, the New Ark Adventure Playground in Peterborough. I spoke to some adventure play experts, as well as some adults who have been studying and working in the area for years…

Samantha - Hello, my name's Samantha Brown and I'm the manager of New Ark.

Lily - I'm Dr. Lily Fitzgibbon. I'm a researcher of child development in the Division of Psychology at the University of Stirling.

Robert - My name is Robert Dighton and I'm the chief executive at ELHAP. ELHAP is one of very few adventure playgrounds set up and designed for disabled children. Originally, adventure playgrounds were built in bomb sites, and the idea was that it was a space where children could build and destroy their own play spaces. They were the masters of their own play destiny. So it is quite a revolutionary concept. The adventure play is a microcosm of the play that we used to do 30, 40 years ago without giving it a name. It's the play that, as children, most of us encountered when we'd play in the streets, by the rivers, in the forests. It was a sense of freedom, a sense where we learn our own limits, our own potential, our own abilities and disabilities. It was playing freely away and outside of the adults world.

Lily - It's the kind of play that makes children shriek or bunch up their hands in excitement. But the idea is that they're, they're taking some risks, but they're managing those risks themselves.

Samantha - Children come in and the very first time they look at the adventure playground and it's like 'wow'. They're in awe basically with what they see and, through supervised risky play, they can extend their learning and social skills.

Robert - All children are experiencing a play deprivation. You think play is a recreational and leisure term isn't it? It feels such a luxury. We know that anybody working in play understands for adventure playgrounds, right through to play therapy and child psychotherapy. We know that play is a serious business. It's an essential component to childhood. There's a risk aversion, generally. There's a kind of burgeoning problem in that parents don't want their children to play outside in the streets, or certainly not in rivers and in forests as I did as a child. So children's worlds are restricting. They are becoming smaller and smaller each year and COVID, I think, accelerated that massively.

Lily - So in some theoretical work led by Professor Helen Dodd, she suggested that adventurous play is a means for children to learn how to cope with the kinds of physical sensations and emotional experiences that they might have in their everyday lives. By having these experiences in a kind of positive playful environment, they learn how to cope with them. And then if they come across them in more difficult situations, then they may be more resilient. And so we suggest that through these mechanisms. Adventurous play may be a means of reducing or protecting children from anxiety.

Claudia - Yeah, my name's Claudia

James - And how old are you?

Claudia - I am nine, turning ten this year

Brooke - Brooke.

James - And how old are you Brooke?

Claudia - 11.

Brooke - 11.

James - <laugh> it took you a minute there. And what do you think? What do you make of it since you've been here?

Brooke - So that black slide over there?

James - Yeah, tell me about it.

Brooke - So basically, we have these cones that are near those tires, which is my other favourite thing. But we also have those cones where we can just originally just spin around on it, on the floor. But we usually take them over to the black slide over there. We go backwards or forwards on it and we just roll down on it. It's fun, but dangerous as well.

James - It looks a bit dangerous. Have you hurt yourself doing it yet?

Brooke - Yeah. I got a headache but I always laughed every time I ever fell.

Claudia - I really liked the zip line, but sadly it was broken and then-

James - Do things get broken quite a lot?

Claudia - Yeah.

Brooke- We found this blue bucket and we can hide our whole entire body inside of it. So then we're also-

James - I saw you chucking yourself down the slide and it's just your legs poking out the end of it.

Claudia - I haven't had myself badly, but I've chipped one of my nails. And bent my nails.

James - Ouch.

Claudia - Well, I really like the swings. I mean I've stumbled over a few times. Maybe got a few bruises and a few scratches, but nothing too serious.

James - That's good to hear. What about playing at school, playing at home or how does it compare to playing here? Is this way better?

Claudia - This is way better and at home there's not really, you can't fit like a whole playground in your backyard.

James - Yeah. How do you feel about the fact that not all kids get to play at a playground like this?

Claudia - Well, I mean, it's a bit sad because without this, let's say you are stuck at home. You're bored. You have nothing to do. Whereas here you can get out exercise, play a lot.

Lily - Our data really suggests that children from underprivileged backgrounds have the most to gain from access to these adventurous play spaces or places that avoid adventurous play like green spaces. And so they also are likely to have the most lose in terms of both their physical and mental health. So it's really crucial that these kinds of spaces remain open and that children from lower income backgrounds continue to have access to them, that they don't just become a kind of luxury of the financially secure.

Robert - Well, there's a problem in that there is no funding, and play was always seen as a kind of a luxury. And it's to our detriment. We could quadruple our services and I don't think we'd touch the sides.

Samantha - We have been fortunate enough to have received funding from the local authorities. Unfortunately, they have not got the funds within their budget to be able to fund us anymore. And we understand that and we are doing all that we can to ensure the future of New Ark.


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