Outdoor Play: Does Avoiding the Risk Reduce the Benefits?

By Little, Helen; Wyver, Shirley | Australian Journal of Early Childhood, June 2008 | Go to article overview

Outdoor Play: Does Avoiding the Risk Reduce the Benefits?


Little, Helen, Wyver, Shirley, Australian Journal of Early Childhood


WITHIN THE EARLY CHILDHOOD field, play has long been acknowledged as an important context for children's learning and development. Play is a significant aspect of their lives, reflecting their social and cultural contexts. Consequently, changes within these contexts impact on both the nature and quality of children's play experiences.

This paper aims to examine outdoor play in the light of social and environmental factors that have impacted on children's play experiences, particularly in urban Western culture. It provides a review of the literature since 1990, drawing on findings from a range of disciplines. It is argued that stimulating and challenging experiences involving physical risk are an important and necessary aspect of children's healthy growth and development; yet social, institutional and educational factors apply implicit and explicit pressure on early childhood staff to eliminate or minimise experiences involving physical risk. The reviewed literature was accessed through electronic databases (EBSCO, OVID, Science Direct) and includes empirical research and other scholarly sources such as practitioner viewpoints to provide a comprehensive discussion of the relevant issues. The significant role of early childhood education settings and practitioners in supporting opportunities for well-managed risks in the context of stimulating and challenging outdoor play provision is considered.

Value of play

There has been considerable research documenting the vital role of play in fostering optimal growth, learning and development across all domains--physical, cognitive, social, emotional--throughout childhood (Fisher, 1992; Isenberg & Quisenberry, 2002; Stine, 1997). Play provides a vehicle for children to both develop and demonstrate knowledge, skills, concepts and dispositions (Dempsey & Frost 1993; Isenberg & Quisenberry, 2002).

Play provides a non-threatening context for children to learn about their world and gain skills necessary for adult life (Bjorkfund, 1997; Bruner, 1972). Through their interactions with the environment during play, children gain control and ultimately mastery over their bodies with the development of a range of manipulative and motor skills. They learn new skills and concepts, discover the world, and learn about themselves and others through their interactions in a variety of social situations. Play also facilitates language development, creative thinking and problem-solving, and helps children deal with complex and competing emotions (Dempsey & Frost 1993; Wyver & Spence, 1999; Zeece & Graul, 1993).

Furthermore, children today are growing up in an era of increasing emphasis on academic achievement and the significance of the early years for learning. Recent contributions from brain research have provided much support for the early years as a period for optimising learning across all areas. Children's early experiences and interactions, including those during play, affect the way the brain develops and helps shape its structures (Shore, 1997). Within this research there is an acknowledgment of the importance of play as a 'scaffold for development, a vehicle for increasing neural structures, and a means by which all children practice skills they will need in later life' (Isenberg & Quisenberry, 2002, p. 33).

Play has traditionally been the foundation of good practice in early childhood education. While current practice makes no distinction between play and other experiences that foster children's learning, open-ended child-directed play opportunities in a rich environment are still seen as a very important and integral part of early childhood education practice (Stonehouse, 2001).

The significance of play as an essential part of every child's life has also been acknowledged by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Article 31 supports a child's right to rest and leisure, and to participate in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child (Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, 1990). …

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