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  • Skribentens bildSuzanne Axelsson

Putting the Adventure back into Play

I am researching, writing and observing about all things risky play at the moment and it is really making me aware of just how controlled children's play is, in just about all areas of their life.

While Scandinavian schools rank much higher on the playometer than probably most other countries it is still important to remember that the vast majority of Swedish children are institutionalised from the age of one!

Most will not like to think of preschool, or early years care as an institution, as the image of austere orphanages often pop into our heads; the thing is, preschools, schools etc, are adult controlled institutions that are compelled to adhere to a whole load of regulations where most of them prioritise academic education and keeping children safe.

Also the world is getting ever smaller in the sense of our cultures, fears and approaches are melting into each other - this is both good and limiting. It is fantastic to be inspired by other cultures and approaches, it is concerning when fears spread and start to limit freedoms, even fears of losing freedom seems to be having quite the opposite affect.

"Risky play", I think, is a bit of an unfortunate way of phrasing the whole idea of adventurous, tummy-tickling play where the outcome is not completely certain, it is also unfortunate that it is mostly associated with physical play, when in fact it is much more complex and wholistic (and by wholistic I mean the whole of who you are right now, with the knowledge that the whole of you will be different in the future).

In the last month I have had the chance to observe play in Athens, Stockholm and Copenhagen in both preschools, afterschools (wrap around care) and public playgrounds. What I have noticed is that there is not so many spaces, especially in public places designed for them, where children can access adventure. I also noticed that adventure does not always come in a beautiful aesthetic package, it tends to be a little more chaotic, a little more worn and has a completely different sense of beauty in its playability. I have also noticed how there are not so many spaces where all children, with all abilities and backgrounds can participate in adventurous play.

There are places where there are determined efforts to make space for adventure - I witnessed this at Dorothy Snot in Athens. I also saw it at one of the preschools I passed in Copenhagen and also the Junk Playground in Emdrup suburb of Copenhagen. The Skrammellegeplads was my main destination when I was there earlier in the week. I planned a walking route from the station that would take me past multiple playgrounds, schools and preschools, as well as parks, but the goal was, without a shadow of a doubt, the Emdrup Junk Playground. After all my playwork lessons last year, it felt somewhat like holy ground - the location of the playground that inspired Lady Allen back in 1943 to set up adventure playgrounds in the UK.

I was buzzing with excitement as I got closer.

I walked around the space (with permission) just once taking photographs, and then sat myself in an area that was not being used by the children (although kept a watchful eye to see if it wanted to be used). I then observed for an hour (before needing to walk back to the station).

There was a freedom to the play (these were all school age children). The area was large, and there were lots of spaces where the children could seek refuge and be out of the adult gaze. I think this is so so important. If children are to access adventure they need to feel unwatched in order to feel free to try things without feeling judged.

There were gardens, buildings, trees, makeshift swings, hills, open flat spaces, dens, ball-sport area and different surfaced areas. There was also a lot of junk ready to be used, and a whole system for collecting donated junk (treasure), as well as recycling.

What did surprise me was that on this day, during the entire hour I observed there was little to no play between boys and girls together. The boys did one thing, the girls did another. There was a mix of male and female playworkers/fritidsledare, that was fairly even, but slightly more females. Another interesting observation was that of the three small accidents that occurred that resulted in tears the female leader responded by checking the child, comforting and then telling them to go to the deck to another adult to get a plaster (bandaid) for their elbow; the other two crying children were both carried by the male teacher (each child with a different male) all the way to the deck to be left with the female adult there. I am unsure whether the injuries were so serious that they warranted 7-8 year olds to be carried, but I thought it was an interesting observation. In Athens I noticed that when a child hurt themselves, a bigger hurt that the child reacted more strongly to, but not at all serious, that several educators would respond and lavish attention and problem solving - this indicated a larger nervousness of what the parents might say and the need to make sure that everything is alright.

Gender, fear of parental reactions are both things that can limit adventurous play. Adult expectations of what children can do, should do can be influenced by gender - the female that encouraged the child to go to the deck was a male child, the two children carried were both female.

There is also research showing that preventing adventurous play - that includes war play and fight-play (emphasis on play and not real fighting) often gets banned because of adult concerns that this kind of play is not appropriate results in children not being able to access the play their brain needs to process stuff in the way they need to - often it is boys that seek out this kind of play as part of the their physical and emotional regulation (see Ebba Theorell's PhD research "Force, form, transformations. Kinesthetic musicality and body-worlding in boy´s war play" in Swedish). So when I notice these gender things it is from a perspective of how stereotypes are limiting all genders and trying to understand how hidden bias is continuously impacting play. Hence the need for spaces WITHOUT adults for children to play in.

Of course this is more complicated than just being hands off and no adults. As children need adults with different kinds of perspectives than those they are interacting with at home to help them question norms in order to weed out harmful stereotypes that can limit children (either directly themselves, or learnt attitudes and behaviours that can harm or exclude others). This is a large part of why I feel Original Learning is so important. It is that mix of hands off that allows the adventure to permeate the play, but also hands on when children need guidance, support and access to multiple ways of thinking. For me it is never about making children think about something in a specific way, but about enabling children to think for themselves by accessing multiple perspectives and the time to process that to make their own informed decisions. Play is a part of that process.

Play needs to be autonomous for that process to actually function. And adventurous or risky play is a form of play that often gets limited or, worse, banned, because adults fear it or fail to understand it. This means children's access to autonomy is limited, and therefore the ability to process life and stuff that happens in life becomes inaccessible. I have always valued a more boisterous form of play than many of my colleagues, and I have frequently had to have discussions about why I have permitted children to engage in certain kinds of play, activities and experiences. I have also found myself narrating some play, not for the sake of the children, but for the sake of other adults in the same play space (especially public spaces) so that they understand that I know what is going on, that I value what is going on and that I don't want them to interfere. Of course my narration has an impact, I wish I didn't have to say anything and could remain visibly invisible, but as it stands there are times when the best way of protecting the flow of the play is to disturb it a little by informing other adults of what is going on. In the images below the first two are from a preschool I passed by (children were playing in this area the first time I passed, and happily for me it was empty the next time so I could take photos). The space was a mix of fixed features and loose parts, traditional looking stuff and a few unusual elements (like the wide steps from the building down to the playspace included a VERY wide slide) The rest of the images are taken at the junk playground. It is a beautiful green space, which I bet benefits from not having quite as long winters as further north in Sweden, as the greenery helps create those secret spaces to be in. Missing in the images is the hill - which is to the left of me on the photo of the flat open space where they were playing rounders/brännboll/baseball. There was an adult fixing one of the buildings alongside girls cleaning and taking care of the gardens (yes... the boys were playing, the girls were taking care of the space - felt so gender specific, yet at the same time, maybe these are also meeting needs??? - as I don't know the children, or the space I don't know if this is a one time sort of thing or roles that they have fallen into, or whether there are certain days certain children are given responsibilities). I will write about this space again, and about adventure. But this is probably enough for now.

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laura newman
laura newman
May 30, 2022

Lovely read and reminds me of all the places in nature my daughter has adventured over the years. By coincidence, she has just asked me if she can go camping and adventuring!

In my research into the lateralisation of the brain (Iain McGilchrist "The Master and his Emmisary.") it strikes me that this kind of natural risk-taking play that you describe is very much engaging the right hemisphere, being the one that is engaged in an unpredictable, fresh, living, embodied way.

The sad truth is that we have become a right-hemisphere deficit culture in the Western world (McGilchrist) and 'true' play is a declining activity (Neufeld). How better to re-address the balance by cultivating adventure spaces that you describe so…

Suzanne Axelsson
Suzanne Axelsson
Aug 02, 2022
Replying to

thank you so much for this comment... I will be taking a look at the right brain research you mention, although I try to stick to whole brain as much as possible.

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