"European Society or European Societies?" - exploring divisions of age and class through attitudes to risk and uncertainty in play
International Play Association: Promoting the Child?s Right to Play The London region children?s charity London Play London, United Kingdom
Risk-taking in play offers children a way of being "in control of being out of control and so enjoy a sense of both risk and mastery simultaneously"(Gordon & Esbjorn-Hargens, 2007). Inter-generational shifts underlie the transition to a risk society. We will explore contemporary attitudes of children and adults in the UK towards risk and why risk is important in developing children's ability to assess risks and uncertainty, and foster resilience.
Past generations of children often built their own play environments. But children's habitat has shrunk significantly; streets belong to adults and cars. Traditional local social networks and public playable space have diminished. Public attitudes to risk and institutional risk-averseness can cripple the development of exciting play opportunities. A 2008 survey shows 51% of children aged 7-12 years are not allowed to climb a tree without adult supervision.
Gill (2007) argued that tackling risk aversion in childhood is as pressing for public policy as global issues. Alongside mounting evidence indicating the adverse effects of lack of risk taking opportunities, public policy is gradually changing. The message, from the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents to the Department for Children, Schools and Families, is that a "cotton-wool culture" is holding children back. A balance has to be struck between concerns for children's overall welfare and a need to keep them physically active.
However, great confusion remains about striking the right balance. Parents who take a more relaxed view of their children's independent outdoor play, or those less able to supervise their children due to economic pressures, often face peer criticisms. And local play providers still fear litigation should accidents occur.
Lester and Russell's 2008 comprehensive literature review indicates that current social policy is rooted in the risk-focused prevention paradigm, arguing that children need strong social networks, managed exposure to risk and acute (rather than chronic) stressors, and the opportunity to experience control, agency and mastery.
Making children's world too safe, we risk creating new generations of children and young people who are ill-prepared, less capable and self-reliant, and therefore actually more prone to physical and social harm later in life.