Adventurous play helps children learn resilience and how to assess risk

“If we want children to be prepared for risk, we need to allow them to come into contact with risk.” So says Prof Rolf Schwarz of Karlsruhe University of Education in a recent newspaper article on how Germany is leading the way in an approach to playground design that has moved away from a focus on total safety. Instead, obstacles, challenges and an element of risk are deliberate features of the design. Apart from the need for children to learn risk assessment and risk management — with the occasional broken bone a not totally unacceptable price to pay — the thinking is that, by heightening children’s awareness of the need to be careful, it actually makes an accident less likely to happen in the first place.

The Guardian article, Learning the ropes: why Germany is building risk into its playgrounds, offers reasons why the German approach to playgrounds is more experimental than that of the UK and the USA — a combination of an intellectual tradition of thinking seriously about play, a postwar urban landscape that provided plenty of space for playground development and a culture of adherence to strict design standards.

The article makes a compelling case. It cites a 2004 academic study which found that children who had improved their motor skills in playgrounds at an early age were less likely to suffer accidents as they got older:

These results emphasised the need for organised development of movement coordination and concrete motor skills in kindergarten in order to effectively prevent accidents.

Quoted from the abstract, Accident prevention through development of coordination in kindergarten children, 2004

It also cites concerns from insurance companies that, with children now spending more time at home, they need to be learning risk competence.

One of the principles behind modern playground design in Germany is an emphasis on challenges to be overcome, important for the development of resilience and problem-solving skills:

When we design new playground structures, we try to build in challenges: an obstacle, for example, that a child may fail to overcome the first nine times but then manages at the tenth attempt. The aim is to allow the greatest amount of freedom while guaranteeing the greatest amount of safety. We are not trying to avoid every broken leg possible.

Steffen Strasser, of German manufacturer Playparc, quoted in the Guardian article

LBL has focused extensively on the need for children to be able to safely enjoy and learn through play — especially outdoors. As well as its physical and mental health benefits, outdoor play is crucial for helping children to learn to assess and manage risk:

First, we are seeing children getting towards the end of their primary school years without having had enough opportunities to develop their ability to assess and manage risk independently. Second, if children are getting less time to play outdoors in an adventurous way, this may have an impact on their mental health and overall wellbeing.

Professor Helen Dodd, Professor of Child Psychology, University of Reading

Professor Dodd has written an excellent blog, Adventurous play as an antidote to anxiety, on the Playing Out website, a campaigning group that we have blogged about before.

And here is an easy-to-follow article on the BBC website arguing why ‘risky play’ is important for children’s development.

Meanwhile, the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award is an outstanding scheme in the UK that allows older children and young adults — the award covers the 14- to 24-year-old age range — to learn resilience and risk management as well as many other key life skills. The Expedition section of the award requires participants to “plan, train for and complete an unaccompanied, self-reliant expedition…with minimal external intervention and without motorised assistance”. The Residential section (at Gold level only) additionally requires young people to “undertake a shared activity or specific course with people you don’t know, in a residential setting away from home and in an unfamiliar environment.”

More About Outdoor Play and Learning

Image at the head of this article by Vlad Vasnetsov from Pixabay.

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