27 November 2017

Head of Junior School

Is the risk worth it?

"Children need the freedom and time to play. Play is not a luxury. Play is a necessity." Kay Redfield Jamison (Professor of Psychiatry)

Last week I attended a seminar organised by the Association of Independent Schools of WA and presented by Kids Safe. The event invited Heads of schools, Business Managers, and Buildings and Grounds Managers to hear about the benefits and misconceptions for outside play for children.

During the course of the presentation some startling facts were shared:

  • It is recommend that children spend two hours outside playing each day.
    • 59% of primary boys
    • 73% of primary girls
    • 90% of secondary girls

Do not meet the recommendations.

  • Australian children take 200 fewer steps per day than is required to avoid being overweight or obese.
  • A 2008 study undertaken by Essex University looked at the strength of a group of 10 year olds in 2008 compared with the same age group in 1998.
    • In 2008:
      • Arm strength fell by 26%
      • Grip strength declines by 7%
      • Number of sit-ups a 10 year old could do declines by 27%
      • 1 in 10 children could not hold their body weight while hanging from a wall bar, while in 1998 it was only 1 in 20.

The gradual decline of physical activity in primary aged children has made outdoor play areas more relevant today than they have ever been.

Understandably parents have concerns about letting their children go. Concerns about safety and possible injury are the major ones. Eighty-three percent of injuries children sustain are fall related. It may be of no surprise to parents that the piece of equipment that had the most injuries on it was the monkey bars. This is simply because it is the most popular piece of equipment being used over twice as much as any other.

What else contributes to injuries? We have become very good as parents at ensuring all is safe and that our children do not put themselves at taking risks. We have become so good in fact that children now are very poor at assessing risks themselves.

The main factors associated to risk for children are:

  • Age
  • Gender
  • Rate of exposure to playground equipment
  • Physical and cognitive development
  • Lack of peripheral vision (this develops later in childhood)
  • Inability to judge moving objects
  • Concentrate on only one thing at a time
  • The way children play

Learning to judge risks for themselves is a skill and play is the main vehicle for developing this essential skill. Remembering how we played as children may highlight this. As boy I climbed trees and liked to jump into snow banks. The height I climbed to or jumped from increased as I got older. If I fell, I got hurt, but I got up and reassessed. Jumping off the shed into a pile of snow or climbing the highest tree in the woods behind my house was great but I learned to assess the risk I felt comfortable with. My parents didn't know what I was up to but I learned this key skill through playing in nature.

Times have changed but the need to develop the ability to assess and manage risk in children is still key. Playing in nature can be a wonderful way to ensure our children play for the recommend amount per day and benefit from the additional skills it develops.

Children who play in natural settings:

  • Are sick less soften. Mud, sand, water, leaves, sticks, pine cones and gun nuts can help stimulate children's immunes system as well as their imagination
  • Tend to be more physically active and less likely to be overweight
  • Are more resistant to stress; have lower incidences of behaviour disorders, anxiety and depression, and have higher measure of self worth
  • Develop essential risk assessment skills
  • Play in more diverse, imaginative and creative ways and show improved language and collaborative skills
  • Have more positive feelings about each other
  • Experience a considerable reduction bullying behavior
  • Experience reduced symptoms of Attention Deficit Disorders after contact with nature

While plastic playgrounds seem ideal they do not always offer children the simulation and challenge they require.

Children tell Kid Safe:

  • They like plants and tress
  • The don't like bright colours
  • They want to play in sand
  • They want to get dirty
  • The like places to hide

We will be reviewing our outdoor play spaces and will be looking to develop our playground to be a more nature based, more challenging and developmentally and learning space.

Get into nature, climb a tree and assist your child in gaining the many benefits outside unstructured play can provide.

John Stewart

Head of Junior School