Safety, play and learning in the Early Years

The Early Years Foundation Stage (DfE, 2017) sets out in its four guiding principles that all children in the birth to five age range are:

1) Every child is a unique child, who is constantly learning and can be resilient, capable, confident and self-assured 

2) Children learn to be strong and independent through positive relationships​.

3) Childrenlearn and develop well in enabling environments, in which their experiences respond to their individual needs and there is a strong partnership between practitioners and parents and/or carers. ​

4) Children develop and learn in different ways (see “the characteristics of effective teaching and learning” at paragraph 1.9) and at different rates. ​

The framework covers the education and care of all children in early years provision, including children with special educational needs and disabilities.

But when we are working with children, how do we ensure that children are enabled to understand a potential source of harm, a hazard and a risk, where the outcome of an action may have an adverse outcome?

As adults we live in a socially constructed risk averse society that sees danger all around us that is generally not really there. Often the overbearing approach of adults to manage all aspects of children’s life can lead to greater issues for the child; poor mental well-being, lack of resilience and self-esteem, for example.

Children don’t necessarily have trouble with differentiating the difference as much as adults do and are very able to understand that good risks and hazards are acceptable and hold few surprises, whereas bad risks offer no obvious developmental or other benefits (Ball et al, 2008:29-31).

Risky play can take many forms, and can be whilst children are engaged with technology, indoors in navigating relationships and outdoors.

All children need to engage with risky play as it is a natural and necessary part of development. So, what can early years professionals do to ensure that this crucial element of development is not shied away from and that the principles of the Early Years Foundation stage are honoured?

First of all what is risky play?

It is where adults provide opportunities for all children to encounter or create uncertainty, unpredictability, and potential hazards as part of their play.

Why do adults need to understand that children need risky play?

Children need to take risks, so as they can learn:

How far they can go when playing,

What their skills are and what they need to master,

To push the boundaries of learning, again to see what they can master,

To deal with the consequences and develop resilience,

And most importantly, to get to learn who they are.

If you are working with children, consider how safe spaces can be created for children in your setting, at home and in the wider environment and how you would take account of culture and different approaches to parenting.

About the author

This blog was written by Senior Teaching Fellow, Rachel Strisino.

Learn more about safety, play and learning at our online taster session in July for the Foundation Degree in Early Childhood.

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