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3 January 2002Printer-friendly versionEmail a friend

Play on
Children's unsupervised play is not a luxury, but a crucial aspect of their development.

by Jenny Cunningham

A significant body of research evidence now indicates that there has been a drastic decline in children's outdoor activity and unsupervised play (1). For example, it has been calculated that the free play range of children - the radius around the home to which children can roam alone - has, for nine-year-olds in the UK, shrunk to a ninth of what it was in 1970 (2). Evidence also shows that more and more of children's activities are being organised or supervised by adults(3).

A sobering study by Gill Valentine and John McKendrick, published four years ago, found that it is not the lack of provision of play facilities that limits children's outdoor or unsupervised play, but parental anxieties about children's safety (4). Parents feel that children are more at risk today than they were as youngsters. In all the studies of parental anxieties, the two biggest fears voiced by parents are abduction by strangers and road traffic. Yet, despite the increasing levels of worry, in reality children have never been safer.

Child abduction or murder by a stranger is remarkably rare and occurrence rates have remained largely unchanged for the past 50 years. In the UK, there are on average seven deaths and 60 abductions a year (5). Considering that there are over 12million children in the UK, the chances of such a dreadful fate befalling a child are remote. The number of children killed or seriously injured in road accidents has been falling steadily for well over a decade. Both deaths and serious injuries have halved since 1985 (6).

As society becomes increasingly paranoid about children's vulnerability, a parallel - and equally problematic - trend has developed, which regards any risk as unacceptable and all accidents as preventable. In June 2001, the British Medical Journal declared that it was banning the word 'accident' from its pages because all eventualities can be foreseen and measures taken to avoid adverse outcomes (7). As sociologist Frank Furedi has cogently observed: 'physical injury to children is no longer accepted as an unexceptional fact of growing up' (8).

All unsupervised play is regarded as high risk
A consequence of this trend has been a drive to remove any element of risk from playgrounds and outdoor activities, rendering them unexciting and unchallenging. Local authorities, educational staff or outdoor activity instructors are too often blamed for accidents - which can only make them more cautious about providing challenging activities for children. There have been a rising number of litigations against providers of play facilities and organisers of adventure pursuits. Perhaps most damaging is that a climate has been created in which all unsupervised play is regarded as high risk, and parents or teachers who allow it are seen as irresponsible.

Does it really matter that children's free play outdoors is being curtailed and replaced by adult-led activities? Decidedly, it does. Play is crucial for children's development, particularly unsupervised and adventurous play with peers.

Space to grow

Why, after all, has society come to differentiate between childhood and adulthood? The development of this distinction across society is relatively modern, dating from the latter part of the nineteenth century and mirroring industrialisation. This was both a necessary and desirable evolution. It was necessary because society needed higher levels of skill, intellectual capacity and creativity within its productive forces. This propelled the expansion of education and subsequent introduction of universal education. Children were removed from economic production and given the time, teaching and experiences necessary to become independent and creative adults.

This development was desirable because the universality of childhood provided a unique opportunity to realise the creative potential of the whole of society. It is precisely the freedom of childhood that provides the best apprenticeship for adulthood. An essential part of that freedom is the scope for children to learn through their own experiences, to practise things, to experiment and to make mistakes. This is partly achieved through formal education, but it is also done through the medium of play and peer relationships.

It is through their interactions, and their negotiations with adults and other children, that children gain an understanding of the world and themselves, thereby building up a wider social knowledge. When adults organise children's activities, they inevitably transmit or impose their own values and rules. When children play on their own with peers, they have to evolve their own techniques and rules, a process that allows them to learn through practical experience how to make friends and manage disputes. But when fears about bullying and 'peer pressure' lead adults to interfere in these relationships, an important element of the interaction between children is lost.

The freedom of childhood provides the best apprenticeship for adulthood
We may know that play is important for children's development, but children do not play to learn. They want fun, excitement and challenges. The motivation for play, its structure and role, change during childhood and adolescence.

The ages and stages of play

Very young children show no imaginative play. Their behaviour is governed by the physical environment and by objects. Things dictate what the child does - every perception is a stimulus to action, and meaning is attached to objects. Gradually, through symbolic play, the child begins to separate meaning from specific objects and to act more independently of the concrete situation. For example, wooden blocks can stand in for biscuits during a tea-making exercise, or a box can become a house.

The emergence of imaginative play, at about three to four years, is a very significant step developmentally. In play, children create an imaginary situation in which rules of behaviour are formulated. They try to behave in ways they think they should, to fit the situation and the roles they are assuming. Children's activity now becomes organised through their own ideas, not through things.

Play here is pleasurable, but it is also very demanding. Children have to subordinate their own actions to rules, by controlling their impulsive reactions. The eminent Russian psychologist Lev Semenovich Vygotsky pointed out that in play, a child always behaves beyond his average age, above his everyday behaviour: that 'in play it is as though he were a head taller than himself' (9).

The intrusion of adults in children's play can abolish or diminish this process of acting above one's age and acquiring self-mastery of one's own actions. Paradoxically, children exert more self-control in imaginative play than they do in real life, where their behaviour is less conscious and more reactive. With adults, children tend to be 'childlike' because of their subordinate relationship.

Children exert more self-control in imaginative play than they do in real life
Pretend play with peers is not only significant for children's cognitive development. It is also important for their social and emotional maturation. Through this type of play, they come to understand more about different social roles and relationships. Children need time and space to make sense of the adult world, in their own way. Interaction with this world exposes them to all kinds of confusing and frightening ideas and events. Through fantasy play, children can readdress these issues in activities with other children. They can act out feared situations and rehearse various practical and emotional responses.

In middle childhood, rule-based play becomes closely mirrored by real life, as children are in school and conform to its rules. Here, friendships and conflicts become important in extending children's understanding of the content and meaning of categories and concepts, such as friendship, loyalty and fairness. It is well known that friends experience more conflict than non-friends. Children initiate disputes when friends do not live up to their expectations. Through arguing, children get a better idea of what they can expect of each other, as well as developing shared values and beliefs.

Children have to negotiate the terms of their relations with peers and friends in ways that are not possible with adults. In these relationships they meet as equals and have to work out the rules of engagement - which involves compromise and cooperation.

In adolescence, peer relationships are an important means for clarifying values, ideas and self-identity, through a process of mutual reflection. Young people tend to discuss their problems, feelings, fears and doubts with best friends rather than with their parents. Peer relationships also provide the framework through which teenagers can develop self-sufficiency, independence and responsibility for themselves and others.

Continual adult supervision can act as a brake on children growing up
Adult-child relationships are obviously essential for children's development and education. However, they cannot provide children with the whole range of practical or personal experiences they need - to become more aware of their physical abilities and limitations; to become more conscious of their own and other people's ideas and feelings; to develop their own judgement about social or physical dangers; and to make friendships, those uniquely equal and fulfilling relationships with peers.

In fact, continual adult supervision can act as a real brake on children 'growing up' to become self-motivated and independently creative in solving difficulties or achieving goals.

What can be done?

So what can we do to encourage free play? There seems little point simply providing more 'child friendly' or 'safe' play areas, while parents are so preoccupied with children's safety that nowhere is regarded as secure except the home and no activity without a chaperon is acceptable. The following are a few suggestions that may be more successful:

-- Challenging the false perception that children are more vulnerable today requires that commentators and professionals express a more critical attitude to the inflation of risks and panics about child safety. In particular, this means refuting the notion of the 'risky stranger' and encouraging children to regard unknown adults as potential allies. The more adults that children meet and relate to, the greater will be their powers of discerning a sinister character.

-- Probably the most useful thing that play advocates can do is to get parents together with other members of a community or neighbourhood to discuss how to provide children with greater freedom to roam and with more challenging play environments. The key issue is getting agreement among adults that they will take responsibility for other people's children - that is, that everybody can be trusted to 'look out' for all children in the area. Similarly, discussions between young people and community members could go some way towards resolving the tensions and fears generated by teenagers hanging out on the streets at night with their friends.

-- An open debate is required among parents, professionals and local authorities about the negative impact of 'litigation culture' on children's play opportunities. We have to insist that accidents do happen - fortunately very rarely serious or fatal - and nobody is to blame. Exciting and challenging experiences necessarily involve an element of risk. However, they also contain the vital elements of learning how to minimise risk or injury and of taking responsibility for yourself and others.

Above all, we need to recognise that meeting a personal challenge brings the exhilaration of achievement, which inspires us all to raise our expectations of ourselves.

Jenny Cunningham has been a community paediatrician in Glasgow for 18 years. She works in one of Glasgow's four Child Development Centres and her particular expertise is in neurodevelopmental disability and autism. The article is based on a paper presented at the Play Scotland annual conference 2001: 'The State of Play in Scotland'.

Read on:

Parents and kids

(1) Gaster S, 'Urban Children's Access to their Neighborhoods: Changes over three generations', Environment and Behaviour, January 1991, 70-85; Hillman M (ed), Children, Transport and the Quality of Life, London: Policy Studies Institute, 1993; Valentine G, Stranger Danger: parents' fears and restrictions on children's use of space, Sheffield: Department of Geography, University of Sheffield, 1996; Wheway R and Millward A, Child's Play: Facilitating Play on Housing Estates, London: Chartered Institute of Housing, 1997

(2) Wheway R and Millward A, Child's Play: Facilitating Play on Housing Estates, London: Chartered Institute of Housing, 1997

(3) Barnodo's, Playing it Safe, London: Barnado's, 1995; Ennew J, 'Time for children or time for adults?', in J Qvortrup, M Bardy, G Sgritta and H Wintersberger (eds) Childhood Matters: Social Theory, Practice and Politics, Aldershot: Avebury Press, 1994; Hillman M, Adams J and Whitelegg, J, One False Move…A Study of Children's Independent Mobility, London: Policy Studies Institute, 1990

(4) Valentine G and McKendrick J, 'Children's Outdoor Play: Exploring Parental Concerns About Children's Safety and the Changing Nature of Childhood', Geoforum, 28(2), 1997, 219-235

(5) Families for Freedom, The Kids Are Alright!, London: Families for Freedom Factsheets on Children's Safety, 1997

(6) Moorcock K, Swings and Roundabouts: The Danger of Safety in Outdoor Play Environments, Sheffield: Sheffield Hallam University Press, 1998

(7) Davis R and Pless B, 'BMJ bans "accidents": Accidents are not unpredictable', British Medical Journal, 322, 2001, 1320-1

(8) Furedi F, 'The Parents' Guide: Play', Scotland on Sunday, 9 September 2001, 12-13

(9) Vygotsky L, Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes, M Cole, V John-Steiner, S Scribner, E Souberman (eds), London: Harvard University Press, 1978

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