Taking Risks and Risky Play

The Early Years Foundation Stage ‘sets the standards that all early years providers must meet to ensure that children learn and develop well and are kept healthy and safe’ (EYFS, 2014). The definition of ‘safe’ is ‘protected from or not exposed to danger or risk; not likely to be harmed or lost’ (Wikipedia, 2016).

Early years practitioners are responsible for creating and maintaining a safe environment in which children can play and risk assessing to decide those risks which are acceptable and those risks from which children must be protected. The EYFS (requirement 3.64) states that ‘Providers must ensure that they take all reasonable steps to ensure staff and children in their care are not exposed to risks and must be able to demonstrate how they are managing risks.’ When writing risk assessments, early years practitioners need to consider their own views about risk and it is good practice to speak to children’s parents to gain an understanding of how they view risky play.

Early years experts talk about the benefits of risky play: they tell us that children will never be able to manage risk in later life if they are not exposed to risky play, opportunities to problem solve and self-assess risks during the early years. For example, the risk of falling off a piece of play equipment is quite high, especially if children have no experience of climbing and balancing because they have been protected by adults who are concerned about their safety. However, if an adult supervises and supports them and provides them with age appropriate safe play rules, there are mats in case of falls and equipment is risk assessed to ensure it is safe for the age of children using it, then the children will learn to climb and balance and will be safe in similar play situations such as when they visit a new park.

Many early years practitioners, probably worried about being sued by parents because of childhood accidents, err on the side of caution and remove as much risk as possible from children’s play. However, there is a difference between putting a child at risk eg letting them run into the road and allowing a child to take risks eg letting them climb or jump off a step in a carefully supervised environment. Children need to learn their own limitations: that they are frightened when they climb above a certain height or that they cannot quite stretch so high or reach so far yet. They need to be, for example, exposed to different materials during supervised play, put in a range of different places and scenarios and allowed to try to do things independently if they are to become competent and confident to manage their own safety.

The Characteristics of Effective Learning are detailed in the Development Matters guidance. They include challenge and risk in ‘Playing and Exploring’: learning characteristics are learning processes as opposed to the Early Years Outcomes which detail desirable outcomes for children’s learning. Children are more likely to be engaged in their learning if they are offered open-ended, hands-on experiences which encourage their curiosity and test their ideas about the world in which they live. We need to encourage them to ‘have a go’ and develop a ‘can do’ attitude to their learning and part of this is to be open to taking risks, enjoy new experiences and treat setbacks as learning opportunities rather than failures.

Instead of risk assessment, many early years practitioners use risk-benefit assessments. The Play Safety Forum (2008) provides examples of ways in which ‘providers can develop an approach to risk management that takes into account the benefits to children and young people of challenging play experiences, as well as the risks.’ You might consider, for example, that woodworking is dangerous but if you fully supervise the children, provide them with appropriate tools and give them rules to follow to help keep safe then you might decide that the benefits of the activity (developing confidence when using tools and equipment, practicing small motor skills etc) outweigh the risks.

If a child has an accident, a report must be written and given to an adult with parental responsibility for the child who should sign it and retain a copy. If a child has a serious accident, providers must also inform Ofsted (serious accidents are clarified in this document), their insurance company, the Local Safeguarding Children Board (depending on local reporting guidelines) and RIDDOR. Reporting agencies will ask ‘how did you protect the child?’ and ‘What did your risk assessment say?’ and you must be able to talk confidently about the risk assessment or risk-benefit assessment you had in place before and during the activity.

However, concern about accidents should not stop you from providing children with well managed opportunities to explore risk, test their own limits, gain an awareness of danger, learn about boundaries and rules and take safe risks. Experts remind us that we are doing children a disservice if we constantly do things for them, direct their play and prevent them from taking risks.

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