Risky play is big right now. Play England’s Managing Risk in Play Provision is highlighting best practice and part of a rise in public and practitioner interest on the subject – all sorts of people are asking, what do we allow on site, how and why? Children need risk in their play, need to be able to learn how to conduct their own assessments, but how can we support them in this process without becoming negligent? If Adventure Playgrounds are supposed to be places where children can climb trees, have fires and build hideouts, why have so many playworkers succumbed to the same Health and Safety anxiety as everyone else?
I’ve made arguments before for more talk about emotional or social risk, and will be speaking at Islington Council’s Risky Play Conference next Wednesday about the need for a fully inclusive framework for risky play provision. I’ve had some training, done some practice, and thought I knew (some, at least, of) what I was talking about. Then I went to the Gambia, where I was amazed by the extent to which children were engaging in play behaviours which I would have classed as profoundly risky, but which they took entirely for granted.
Most obviously, they climbed very high trees, for pure fun and to collect mangoes. I saw one small child get stuck at the end of a branch and intentionally fall out, shake himself off and start again.
Much more startling to me were the stories of the boys’ hunting expeditions out into the bush. Older boys make bows and arrows to hunt wild pigs, bringing their knives with them. I asked one if he brought his younger brother with him.
“No,” he said. “He’s too little. He (hunts) rabbits. When he’s 8, then he come.”
Some of this blurs the line between children’s play and work – a distinction which many theorists have pointed out is largely one of adult construction. If children choose to go hunting and gathering with their friends, sometimes singing or playing games along the way, calling that labour seems absurd. That said, the boys’ voluntary hunting expeditions directly contribute to the welfare of their family and village as rabbits and wild pigs regularly destroy crops and are then serving a function additional to play.
They said it was exciting to go, and they seemed proud of being both old and strong enough to do this useful thing. It was clear that bringing back the meat to his family would be a very important moment in a boy’s life, and many of the younger boys were sitting in the playground making toy bows and arrows for their games. The element of danger made it all the more exciting.
What interested me though, was that the younger boys weren’t formally taught to make bows, and none of the boys were taught by their parents. Each generation learned in stages, first by observing the preparations of their elders from a distance, by mimicking what they had seen. Then, when they were old enough to be taken along on rabbiting trips, they were allowed to watch but not participate. Only gradually, after many halts and stages, would they be considered hunters.
This was a child’s cultural knowledge, hoarded and shared according to the judgements the eldest ones made of those younger. However much the wider community may have benefited from the hunt, it was conducted by and for the boys themselves.
So how can we add this to what we know? That children can conduct their own assessments of risk and benefit, both for themselves and for those younger or less experienced, can largely be taken for granted. But these boys demonstrated that children can do this from a younger age than we might imagine, in the face of risks that we would not willingly take ourselves – how many readers would hunt a wild pig with a knife?
It reinforced for me how particular our ideas of risk are, and how paranoid. These children take their freedom to roam for granted, as well as their ownership of a knife and ability to use both in whatever way they see fit. Our fears over paving stones that get slippery or climbing walls with too high a drop demonstrate how we still take carry the false belief that we can control all elements of our children’s environments. Even when we argue for more risk in play provision, we think of it as something we can “manage”, when we know that the real dangers are always unexpected. The middle ground we seem to be striking for, of building designated playgrounds that offer carefully considered opportunities for risk, is still not nearly enough.