Play and Challenge

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All children and young people need and want to take risks physically and emotionally as they grow up, no matter what culture or background they come from, or what impairments or behaviour they may come with.

The benefits of risk taking include: extending skills, developing physical and emotional capacities, challenging ourselves in new ways and gaining direct experience of the consequences of our actions. Being brave and conquering a fear is something that is very important to children and a sign of growth. 

What do we mean by risk and challenge in terms of play provision?

We mean providing opportunities for all children to encounter or create uncertainty, unpredictability, and potential hazards as part of their play. We do not mean putting children in danger of serious harm.

Every child is different; one child's idea of a risky situation might be another's idea of something easy-peasy. We do not force children to do anything that they feel is beyond them, or encourage them to go any further than they feel safe. Neither do we simply leave children to fend for themselves.

If in doubt, or if we are unfamiliar with the child, we err on the side of caution; we have a duty of care towards the children in our setting.

We need to be aware that some disabled children will have been excluded from potentially risky situations, and that inclusive practice means opening up or supporting all children in creating what are risky play opportunities for them.

Quality play provision includes opportunities for children and young people to take risks. If we do not provide play opportunities that involve some element of risk and challenge children will seek it elsewhere. Any risk assessment must balance the danger of harm against the benefit to the child in taking part in the risky behaviour.

Balanced approach to risk

The Play Safety Forum (PSF) and the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) have published a joint high level statement to promote a balanced approach to managing risk in children's play.

The statement emphasises that when planning and providing play opportunities, the goal is not to eliminate risk, but to weigh up the risks and the benefits - no child will learn about risk if they are wrapped in cotton wool.

PSF and HSE urge all organisations to embrace the recommendations and principles in the statement: Children's Play and Leisure: promoting a balanced approach.

This statement makes clear that:

  • Play is important for children’s well-being and development
  • When planning and providing play opportunities, the goal is not to eliminate risk, but to weigh up the risks and benefits
  • Those providing play opportunities should focus on controlling the real risks, while securing or increasing the benefits – not on the paperwork
  • Accidents and mistakes happen during play – but fear of litigation and prosecution has been blown out of proportion.

More information

Statement on risk

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) made the following statement in January 2005:

Sensible health and safety is about managing risks, not eliminating them all. HSE is not in the business of stamping out simple pleasures wherever they appear and at whatever cost. We recognise the benefits to children's development of play, which necessarily involves some risk, and this shouldn't be sacrificed in the pursuit of the unachievable goal of absolute safety. 

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