by Blair Barrows, M.Ed Candidate, Special Education
Peabody College of Vanderbilt University
As a college student studying education, I loved learning about educational methods or theories. My first introduction to the world of educational philosophies was through my mother, a teacher at a Reggio Emilia inspired pre-school. I was intrigued by the free flowing nature of the philosophy and the child-driven learning strategies that it offered. The interest peaked my research into different growing educational philosophies, such as Waldorf or Montessori, which encompassed similar ideals. Examining them together, I realized they all shared one common idea—children learn through play. At first, I had a “duh” moment, thinking, of course children learn through play. It was not a revolutionary idea that I had come across and I assumed that many people shared this belief. However, when I began to reflect on my own educational experiences, I saw that play and education were completely separated. I knew that play was important, but I could not understand why it never intersected with my schooling past the age of 5. Why was play being pushed out of the classroom?

Around the same time of my personal educational reflection, I had the opportunity to apply for a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship, a one-year grant for independent study outside of the United States. I designed a proposal around exploring what it would be like to be in a classroom that utilized play as a learning tool and believed in its importance. Six months later, I found out that I had been granted a Fellowship and that summer I set out to explore the world of play in South Africa, the UK, Finland, Italy, Germany, India, and New Zealand. At the time, I had no idea how much I would learn about the global play world and the trend of risk.

Although I knew that the concept of the “bubble wrapped child” was growing in the U.S., I did not realize how much we do not let our children do until I was living in other countries. While exploring Waldorf, Montessori, Reggio Emilia, Environmental, and Holistic education, I saw children, as young as three years-old, using knives, carving wood, manning a saw, climbing trees on school property, getting rough in sports, and playing freely in and outside of the classroom at school. Giving children the opportunity to engage in self-driven free play meant that the children would possibly encounter risky situations, such as the ones listed above. In the eyes of the schools, allowing children to experience risk helped the children to become better analysts of potential risky situations. For example, if a child is taught how to use a pocketknife correctly at an early age, then he/she is less likely to use one recklessly later in life. In many of the schools that I worked with, the teachers, administration, and parents were confident with the decision to let children experience risk because they understood the rewards. Schools that embodied free play also embraced the chances of risk. Reflecting on educational and play trends in the U.S., I began to realize that play was being removed from schools because play and risk had become associated.

When I was not in a classroom, I learned about local organizations that supported play, play advocates, and government initiatives to create more play opportunities. These organizations and personnel understood that the words “risk” and “play” were becoming synonymous and they wanted to work to change parents’ and school’s opinions otherwise. One particular movement that I fell in love with were Adventure Playgrounds. Adventure Playgrounds, which have been around for a number of decades, capture the pure essence of free play because they allow children to literally create their own play environment using the loose pieces around the playground. I used the word “literally” because often, these playgrounds would allow children to build, on-site, their own structure with nails, hammers, and wood. I observed children grinning with joy as they described their latest development to their fort, relay race they organized, or game that they created. And despite popular belief, each playground organization that I interviewed said that they hardly had any incidences of serious injuries, which they attributed to both their education on construction equipment that they give to playground attendees and that children who spend time at the playground know how to assess potentially risky situations. Children who come to the playgrounds understand the importance of safety when working with construction materials and navigating construction sites. Although a few Adventure Playgrounds exist in the U.S., I fear that the movement may never grow because people would not be able to see past the potential risks associated with them. However, if citizens were able to look past the risk, they would see what I saw—happy and confident children.

The last country that I traveled to was New Zealand and unfortunately, I saw just how much the global trend of risk had affected a country that prided itself on being a “barefoot culture” and popular extreme sports destination. I interviewed a local play advocate who explained to me exactly how much risk had begun to make a home in NZ. At the time of my interview, July 2013, NZ did not have what he referred to as a “suing problem” because it was illegal to sue someone over an incident such as falling on a playground, and therefore, disputes were handled much more on a personal level. This lack of litigation allowed free play to thrive and parents to let their children be involved in rough play at home and at school. However, he told me that NZ was beginning to change their policies, despite the fact that they did not need to. When I asked why the policies were changing, he told me that NZ was changing them in order to fit in with the global trend of risk and that they felt pressure from other countries to conform. Schools were tightening down on which games were allowed at recess, parents were supervising their children more, and the “barefoot culture” was being exchanged for a more rigid educational structure. Our conversation showed me just how much the fear of encountering potential risky situations had crept into international policy. When a country without a needless lawsuit problem was succumbing to the social pressures of limiting risk, and thus free play, had the idea of the “bubble wrapped child” gotten out of hand?

Originally, I set out to exclusively explore the relationship between play and education; however, on my journey I discovered so much more about the world of play than I could have imagined. Although ideally, children’s play opportunities should extend beyond the walls of the classroom, schools are cutting out programs left and right. Now that children are seeking play elsewhere, parents and communities are becoming concerned that their play may be too risky. Many play advocates and researchers that I interviewed agreed that in the long run, we are harming our children because we are keeping them from encountering risk. I believe that through experiencing risk, children will become better risk analysts, thus lowering the chances that they will injure themselves. In order to create a generation of children who can appropriately analyze risk for themselves, without adult intervention, risk and play must no longer be synonymous and children should be given more chances to play freely. Through changing the perceptions of what risk and play mean, I believe that more play opportunities can return to schools, streets, backyards, and playgrounds.