A Playground Should Have A Pulse

Bringing risk back to the school playground

Abe Moore
Abe Moore
May 5, 2019 · 10 min read
Mud pit play — Students collaborating to create a series of pipes & tunnels to drive a Sphero through.
  1. Play is not a reward or break from doing learning, play IS learning.
  2. Recess is NOT a bargaining tool
  3. Homework should be banned in primary schools

What do you think of when you hear the word play? I associate it with joy, innocence, freedom and flow. I picture my littles hard at play exploring, experimenting, falling, and learning. Play makes me smile, shoot nervous glances at my wife, and at times, gasp.

For children, play is timeless. But play has a problem. We, the adults, have inadvertently sabotaged it, and in doing so, we’ve damaged the health and wellbeing of the children we are so desperate to protect.

I grew up in rural Tasmania in the late ’80s when it was still commonplace for children to play from sunup to sundown. I could disappear into the scrub on an adventure for hours, or journey further afield on my pushbike with little more than a packed lunch and instructions to be home before dark. Much like Peter Gray describes in Free To Play (2013), “We had time to explore in all sorts of ways, and also time to become bored and figure out how to overcome boredom, time to get into trouble and find our way out of it, time to daydream, time to immerse ourselves in hobbies…” How times have changed. Particularly for the increasing number of kids growing up cities, expected to include half the world’s children very soon.

I wonder how children from past generations would cope if they were implanted into the increasingly fearful, risk-averse, and sedentary society we live in today? How would those kids cope with our ever-shrinking backyards? The influx of screen-based entertainment? The creeping intrusion of adult-directed play and organised activities? The loss of freedoms stemming from an increase in parent anxiety about safety? I imagine children from yesteryear would cope much like today’s youth; poorly. As Peter Gray points out, over past decades there has been a “continuous and ultimately dramatic decline in children’s opportunities to play and explore in their own chosen ways. Over the same decades that children’s play has been declining, childhood mental disorders have been increasing.”

School must also accept a modicum of responsibility for the decline in play and children’s health. John Dewey suggested that school should be a microcosm of the society that we wish to live in. If true, we have work to do because right now, school is failing children. Our increasing obsession with academic performance demands that children sit still for hours on end to get ahead of the competition. Play time is perceived by many to be wasted time. Homework robs children of precious free play and family time. Some schools continue to use the threat or actual loss of play breaks to compel students to sit, listen and comply. When kids are permitted to escape their chairs and go outside to play, many are met with sterilised play spaces stripped of challenge, risk and enjoyment.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

A playground should have a pulse. It should swirl with the sounds of children immersed in play, deep in imagination and adventure. It should inspire creativity and bring the senses to life. To be truly alive, a playground must provide resistance in the form of challenges and real, not imagined, risks. It should have diverse spaces which accommodate all types of interests, ages and abilities.

Venturing into a new playground should be an adventure for children, not a case of deja vu as they encounter yet another ultra-safe, ultra-boring clone of countless other spaces. The immovable, brightly coloured plastic and metal monsters that dominate many playgrounds suck the imagination and life right out of play; they spark about as much creativity as a paint-by-numbers artwork. While touring the United States in the 1960s, adventure playground advocate Lady Marjory Allen of Hurtwood described early versions of today’s equipment-based playgrounds as “an administrator’s heaven and a child’s hell.” These structures do have a role in the play landscape, just not when duplicated ad nauseam in every park and school playground.

“Instead of wrapping kids in cotton wool, we should have steel wool playgrounds” — Greg Miller

Throughout their primary school life, our students spend over 1600 hours in the playground during breaks, so creating opportunities for diverse play is vital. According to Nature Play SA’s design principles, based on the work of David Sobel, a quality play space should include opportunities for fantasy and imagination; adventure; construction; gathering and collection; and special places. A recent student audit of our yard found an abundance of active, sporting play spaces, but little else. According to students, the most interesting spaces in our yard, those most likely to stimulate the types of play mentioned above, are currently considered out-of-bounds areas.

What would an audit of your play spaces reveal?

This provocation from Lady Marjory Allen might be considered a little extreme in 2019. But so, I would argue, is this…

Banned: What is happening when the risk > benefit for a game of tag?

Children learn to judge risks by taking them. They need opportunities to develop their own internal thermometer for risk. In Balanced and Barefoot, Angela Hanscom (2018, pg 126) highlights the importance of controlled risks and common sense safety in the outdoors:

“Although letting kids take risks may be scary for parents and even children at first, it is an essential part of growing up. Taking risks allows children to overcome physical challenges and strengthens their senses at the same time. These benefits ultimately make them safer and more resilient in the long run. Risky play also allows children to overcome fears and anxiety and builds strong character. Children need opportunities to fall and make mistakes in order to become more confident and capable when facing future life challenges.”

Hanscom highlights the work of Professor Ellen Sandseter who defines risky play as “thrilling and exciting forms of play that involve a risk of physical injury.” Professor Sandseter identifies six elements of risky play: handling dangerous tools (hammers and knives); being near dangerous elements (water and fire); exploring heights (climbing trees and rocks); speed (riding fast downhill); rough-and-tumbling play (wrestling and play fighting); and playing on one’s own. How many of these components are present in school playgrounds? How many could or should be?

At a recent sports day, a visiting grandmother spotted two young girls standing atop the monkey bars having a conversation. The concerned Nanna raced over to see what I intended to do about it. Knowing these girls, budding gymnasts for whom this was a daily occurrence, I was comfortable letting them be, so I explained the importance of allowing children judge risk and use equipment to seek suitable challenges. Dissatisfied with my lack of concern, the grandmother returned soon after to probe a little further. If kids could stand on the monkey bars, why not let them climb on the two-metre high retaining walls surrounding the playground too?

“That’s what I’ve been arguing for!” I replied. She did not laugh.

My point is, not all risks are created equally. A careless and avoidable risk to one person might be ordinary or even mundane to another. Judging risk is personal and contextual. To be clear, hazards and risks are not the same thing, but are often conflated. According to the Canadian Public Health Association,

“A hazard is a danger in the environment that could seriously injure or endanger a child and is beyond the child’s capacity to recognize. Risk is then defined as the challenges and uncertainties within the environment that a child can recognize and learn to manage by choosing to encounter them while determining their own limits.”

Schools need to eliminate or minimise hazards while maintaining, or even creating, elements of risk. How do we overcome the adult discomfort that prevents children from taking healthy risks? That leads to games of tag and chase being banned. What learning or discussions need to happen to convince adults that children need opportunities to explore risk, learn to regulate it, and ultimately, become desensitised to it?

The Land — Documentary starts at 5:15

Can you imagine a school playground without rules? Sounds ridiculous, right? I asked my class to consider what would happen if we removed all rules from play breaks and the answer was unanimous: “it would be chaos”. But when we dug a little deeper, it became clear that little would change from how children already play because none wanted to hurt others or themselves. Without rules, students said they would ride bikes and scooters, climb trees, or explore and inhabit “out-of-bounds” spaces. This is consistent with the experience of Swanson Elementary School in Auckland who, as part of a university study, did the unthinkable and got rid of recess rules. As Angela Hanscom explains in Balanced and Barefoot (pg 116), what ensued wasn’t chaos, in fact, “there was a decrease in bullying, a drop in the incidence of serious injuries, and an improvement in classroom concentration.”

I’m not suggesting we should get rid of all schoolyard rules. But perhaps, through consultation with families and students, schools might begin asking “how should we play?” When I turned to my PLN to seek counsel about how school might better support free play, create more diverse play spaces, and reintroduce controlled risk, one word kept emerging: culture.

I asked Sophie Fenton, co-founder and former principal of Sandridge School, if schools should have a role in creating opportunities to experience real, not imagined, risk during free play?

“Yes — I would even say that, more than a role, it is a fundamental part of the purpose, of a school’s reason for being, if that school is committed to educating humans in a way that equips them to become fully realised beings.”

What is the purpose of school? Provocations and policies…

To come full circle, I want to return to the idea of school as a microcosm and ask; what kind of society do we want to live in? What is the purpose of school? Maintaining the current hyper-focus on academic achievement and raising standardised test scores will continue to come at a cost, and it’s a price I’m not willing to pay, as a parent or an educator. As Yong Zhao points out, what works can hurt. So, what can we do?

Educators might consider this question: do you believe in play? You’d be hard pressed to find anyone who would answer no, but how many only give lip service to the importance of play? I would argue that any educator who robs students of free play breaks in the name of discipline, prescribes homework, or sees play as a privilege or worse, a waste of time, either doesn’t understand or doesn't really value, play. I’m not usually the list writing kind, but for what it’s worth, “let’s rumble”:

  1. Play is not a reward or break from doing learning, play IS learning.

In Balanced and Barefoot (pg 125), Angela Hanscom states that “Active free play is critical for developing healthy bodies and minds. It allows children to develop creativity, independent thinking skills, confidence, emotion regulation skills, strength, and healthy sensory and immune systems.”

2. Recess is NOT a bargaining tool

“Recess is not a privilege. It is not a reward. Children should not have to earn recess, and they should not miss recess as a punishment. Because recess is such a vital part of students’ development, taking it away from children makes as much sense as taking away math, reading, or spelling. It does not help them to become better students or better people. So, why are so many schools still using this form of punishment?” — Recess In Not A Privilege by Laura Hanby Hudgens

Is there a more abused compliance tool in the discipline tool-belt than the threat or actual loss of free play? Will this archaic punishment eventually go the way of the cane and dunce hat?

3. Homework should be banned in primary schools

Skip the homework. Haven’t you taken up enough of their day? Let them have time to be children in a real way. So why not send them off at the end of the school day with things to wonder about, or maybe to find someone to share their discoveries with, or with hopes that they might imagine a story to share tomorrow? — Ira Socol, Your School’s UX. What is it? And where to start.

“There is no evidence that any amount of homework improves the academic performance of elementary students.” — Heather Shumaker, Homework is wrecking our children.

Looking for more information or research to back this stance up? Look no further than this Eliminating Homework “Why Sheet” from the Human Restoration Project.

Finally, For anyone interested in policy design, I would highly recommend reading The Importance of Play by Dr. David Whitebread which reports on the value of children’s play with a series of policy recommendations.

  1. Promote awareness and change attitudes regarding children’s play
  2. Encourage improved provisions of time and space for children’s play
  3. Support arrangements enabling children to experience risk and develop resilience and self-reliance through play
  4. Establish funding agencies that promote play and play research

The authors state that “extensive training for all those involved in the care and education of children, concerning the psychological processes embedded in playful activity, the essential qualities of play, the role of adults in supporting it and its benefits for learning and well-being is vitally important. Currently, the research in this area is very far ahead of public understanding, and of much of the practice of parents, and care and educational professionals.”

Thanks for reading.


I’m grateful to my Twitter PLN who helped curate the resources used to create this blog post and further my understanding of play.

Human Restoration Project

Students and teachers are human beings - schools must bring this to light. Follow us on our podcast, this blog, and at HumanRestorationProject.org

Abe Moore

Written by

Abe Moore

Education blog. "I write because I don't know what I think until I read what I say" - Flannery O'Connor

Human Restoration Project

Students and teachers are human beings - schools must bring this to light. Follow us on our podcast, this blog, and at HumanRestorationProject.org

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