The case for risky play in schools is building. Does short term pain (injuries or complaints) alleviate long term mental health issues – you be the judge!


I’ve come to this topic of “play” from several different experiences:

I remember David Rease from Harvard on his first visit to our school standing in our school grounds during recess utterly amazed at children playing with minimal supervision (we had 3 teachers on duty in vests supervising 600 children in our grounds) and then coming to line up for the next class when the bell rang. David comments included they are just getting on, sharing equipment and space and making up their own games. In Victoria and I think Australia children playing at recess and lunch times is common place and the amount of supervision is commensurate with the level of risk perceived by the school leadership. From David’s perspective I suppose this was not as common in the States (if there are other opinions I would like to hear them).

I, am I’m not alone here, just expect children to learn to play together in an undirected way – from an educative experience I see it as an opportunity for them to practice the social skills they have learned.

In reflection I note that the incoming prep children’s parents each year often comment on our large grounds, the number of teachers on duty and ask questions like: is there a confined play area just for the preps, is the playground equipment safe, what happens if a child runs away and are the school gates locked. I think that’s a little of the helicoptering parent condition so prevalent today. They are unsure and just want reassurance its OK.

We had a play survey done (yes that’s right) about a year ago by Play for Life, an organisation that s promotes the value of play. Our report made a number of recommendations one being not to separate preps in the play ground as it limits them seeing right types of play and role modelling of conflict resolution by older students. Anyway part of the report recommended us investing in creative play options for young people. One option they recommended was a play pod. Play PODS are an idea from the UK and for more information check out their website.

Recently I was also pointed to a blog called Psychology Today and a post Risky Play by Peter Grey who wrote the book “Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life”. He makes several conclusions from the research:

“Briefly, the evidence is this.  Over the past 60 years we have witnessed, in our culture, a continuous, gradual, but ultimately dramatic decline in children’s opportunities to play freely, without adult control, and especially in their opportunities to play in risky ways.  Over the same 60 years we have also witnessed a continuous, gradual, but ultimately dramatic increase in all sorts of childhood mental disorders, especially emotional disorders.”


“The story is both ironic and tragic.  We deprive children of free, risky play, ostensibly to protect them from danger, but in the process we set them up for mental breakdowns.  Children are designed by nature to teach themselves emotional resilience by playing in risky, emotion-inducing ways.  In the long run, we endanger them far more by preventing such play than by allowing it. And, we deprive them of fun.”

He also makes the point about parents over emphasis on competitive sport as opposed to a balance between play and sport saying

So, we prevent children from their own, self-chosen, thrilling play, believing it dangerous when in fact it is not so dangerous and has benefits that outweigh the dangers, and then we encourage children to specialize in a competitive sport, where the dangers of injury are really quite large.

So having made some points here on the value of play, community and parent perceptions what about schools?

First let me say schools and teachers are not stand alone places they are effected by community perceptions of risky play sometimes via courts and insurance claims. I have heard of teachers being taken to court for getting children down from trees and piles of claims for medical bills being submitted to schools when students are injured.

Just a side note here to say that schools are not covered by insurance for personal injury unless there is a neglect claim proved – although government public schools insurance companies prefer to settle out of court on a no liability basis as its usually cheaper.

I once had a work cover assessment suggest I wipe all play equipment down each time it rains to prevent children from slipping and causing an injury. Needless to say I resisted such an action not only for its impracticability but I think it would have been the death of all playground equipment in parks and schools in terms of risk management.

There are newspaper stories from schools around the world who supposedly banned playing with balls before school or at recess (Canada, CanadaStates, Victoria, Victoria). In most cases it’s a response to parent complaints. The move to sanitize school grounds is very much alive.

But the point being its all about reducing risk in or through play.

So where do we go – try to allow some risk and accept some injuries along the way or as Peter Gray calls it employ more child psychologists to cope with young people’s mental health issues?

I say resist reducing all risk but do look to promote all sorts of undirected play (e.g. creative, athletic, sports, strategy games – large chess pieces) so that young people have both fun and a chance to learn by taking some risks in undirected ways BUT watch this space.

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