Spaces that challenge
The Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) states that ‘children learn and develop well in enabling environments, in which their experiences respond to their individual needs’ and support children’s learning and development by giving them opportunities ‘to be active and interactive’ (DfE, 2014, pp. 6, 8). But the question arises how you enable children to think and explore for themselves whilst complying with the framework’s statutory requirements (Nutbrown, 2006; Whalley, 2008). Where do you draw the line between concerns for children’s safety and allowing them to take risks? Powell (2004) acknowledges the tension between children’s need to explore and adults’ concern to protect, suggesting that defining ‘risk’ can be problematic. Adults’ views of what is risky may differ from the children’s (Sandseter, 2006). Adults and children’s physical courage vary. Too rigid an approach to risk can inhibit children and disempower them.
Stephenson (2003, p. 36) was interested in the way four-year-olds used the word ‘scary’, and through her research watching them playing outside identified three areas which could appear ‘risky’ for them but which they wanted to overcome:
- attempting something never done before;
- feeling on the borderline of ‘out of control’ often because of height or speed;
- overcoming fear.
Later, observing children under two who were mobile, she concluded that these younger children constantly experience a wide range of physical challenges in such activities as carrying materials, negotiating steps and even running. These observations convinced her that for these children ‘undertaking ‘risky’ activities was an integral part of their drive to extend their physical prowess and so their independence’ (Stephenson, 2003, p. 38)
The way adults view risk is partly cultural. In Scandinavia for instance, children are encouraged to take risks. But with the fear of litigation and huge publicity around health and safety, practitioners are often reluctant to allow children to explore further in case it is dangerous.
Activity 4: Taking risks in a play environment
The objective of this activity is to reflect critically on how children develop their risk taking in play environments.
Now watch the video clip ‘Jumping’, in which a practitioner assists children to jump off a bank, and consider the following:
- How do the practitioners balance the tension between children wanting to jump off the bank and their concern for safety? Do you think they are successful?
- In what ways do the practitioner’s actions empower the children?
- How do the practitioners negotiate with the children?
- What happens to the children towards the end of the clip?
One way of empowering children is to help them make their own risk assessments, encouraging them to understand what is safe and how their actions and decisions impinge on others. Many settings do not have free access in and out of the building because of the need for security, and many children have no garden or opportunities to play unsupervised outside their homes. Thus they have little experience of going freely in and outdoors and learning the actions they must take such as putting on the right clothes, looking to see what activities are taking place or how they can join in or avoid accidents. Adults may need to ‘mediate children’s experiences of the outdoor environment’ (Langston and Abbott, 2004, p. 72), especially with children with a physical disability, but they must also give children opportunities to develop a sense of danger.
An area many early years practitioners find difficult to manage is conflict amongst children. Yet managing difficult situations is a normal part of our lives and is important for children too. Researchers (Eckerman and Didow, 1996; Licht et al., 2008) suggest that conflict amongst children is a crucial area of development as children gain understanding of others and themselves; as a result, they learn strategies for co-operation and for being part of a group. Licht et al. (2008), in their study of children between 8 and 22 months, maintain that many conflicts observed amongst the very young arise over the possession of objects. Viewing this behaviour as negative affects adults’ response, suggest Licht et al., who believe the focus should be on the children’s motivation in the situation rather than on possession. Amongst seven categories of motivation for conflict they found the two main ones across the age group were ‘interrupted activity’ and the need for ‘exploration’. Although the very young children did not show anger towards the other child, they were upset by any interruption to their play. As the children got older, they demonstrated a need to control an object or to dominate the play – that is, they wanted to be the one to make decisions but there was still the motivation to explore. Unfocused exploration can result in boredom or loneliness. Licht et al. (2008) cite a child who spent long hours in a day centre, who also had very irregular sleep patterns, and ran around, grabbing other children’s toys and disrupting their play. They call this behaviour ‘contact and sensation seeking’. They argue that far greater attention should be given to how children explore and how adults respond when conflict arises (Licht et al., 2008, p. 246).