Playing in Safety


A hundred years ago, when I was very young, my Mother always said the same things when I went out to play, “Don’t go anywhere other than where you said you are going”; “Don’t do anything you shouldn’t” and “Enjoy yourself”, in that order.

I knew what time to come back. I knew what I shouldn’t do, so that if I did it and was found out, I also knew there would be consequences! I knew where the dangerous places were and avoided most of them. They were abandoned quarries where deep pits had filled with water over the years and where a few children had drowned, their clothing snagged on rusting iron hidden under the surface. They were rock faces which were too steep to climb unless one felt very brave. They were homes that we all knew to avoid, either because we thought the inhabitants were witches, or we just felt uncomfortable being anywhere near them. Within those few parameters, most of us were expected to get on with the demanding and sometimes serious task of playing until bedtime.

On very rare occasions, something bad did happen to a child, but these were exceptional – the child who drowned, or the little girl who ran across the road without stopping to look. These sad tales served to keep the rest of us alert for a considerable time.

We all had scraped knees and some spectacular falls off bikes during races on the side roads. I still have some scars to show that I was all-time champion on two wheeled bikes in a two-lap race with the boys! I had stitches in my leg where I fell off an iron gate whilst attempting to walk across it like a tight-rope walker. We used to climb onto the back of a cart-horse and then had to jump off when it began to gallop away once it got bored with us. We carried out our own risk assessments and sometimes we were wrong.


In recent years, the safety of children in particular, has become big business. We are so overloaded with Health and Safety ‘speak’ that we appear to have forgotten in some play, the risk is all. There could be several possible reasons for this overactive almost neurotic attitude towards safety.

One is that we probably understand more than ever, the consequences of accidental injury. We have become a litigious society. We are rapidly catching up on America where they play for big money. I remember how shocked I was when I first took out liability insurance for my counselling business and the amount that I was expected to cover myself for was one million pounds.

Most people threaten to sue as a first step rather than a final, no-other-option-move at the end of an unsuccessful attempt at negotiation. Because of this, local councils, statutory services and private enterprise are now governed by umpteen assessments, blocks, provisos etc.

Take the example of Princess Diana’s paddling fountain. Some people slipped, probably because they were running or trying to slide. Now no one is allowed to step into it. At one time, the water was turned off. It may still be a dry fountain for all I know.


David Yearley, RoSPA’s Play Safety Manager, said recently that playgrounds need to be exciting enough to discourage children from seeking bigger thrills along railway lines, riverbanks and roads. RoSPA is concerned about the lack of ‘safe’ risk in play, and is supporting Learning About Safety Through Experiencing Risk (LASER), a scheme where 10-year-olds encounter various scenarios aimed at boosting road skills amongst others.

Another factor could be over-protective parents. Western childhood is supposed to be exciting and adventurous. I think sometimes that parents have been bombarded with ‘helpful’ manuals and television programmes to such an extent that they are no longer willing to take calculated risks in their parenting.

Letting our children go so that they can learn for themselves is something we have done well in this culture for generations. Life has changed beyond recognition since my childhood. There are more people in the world; many more parents work and only see their children for extended time at weekends and holidays. This in itself becomes a problem when one considers how frightening it can be to be a parent and how parenting skills have to be practised in order to be effective. If there are few opportunities to practise allowing your child to taste independence, due to work demands etc., then anyone in this situation is going to lack the confidence of a 24-hour parent or carer.

We acknowledge that children need space, time and safe environments to hone their skills, whether physical or social. Surely parents also require space and time to observe their child and get to understand their fears so that they can best support them towards autonomy. We can’t expect children to go and climb tall trees before they can walk and run. We shouldn’t expect anything different from parents.


In Japan, for instance, children are usually supported and protected by their mothers until they are over 3 years old. Historically, children were viewed as innately good. In Japanese culture Shinto beliefs traditionally regarded children under 7 as “belonging to the gods”. In order to keep the gods happy children were indulged and treated with leniency so that they did not decide to return to the gods (Kojimo, 1986). The child is considered an extension of the mother and in turn, the mother seeks to consolidate and strengthen a mutual dependence with the child. Japanese methods of child-rearing also strive to remove any kind of stress that the child might encounter.

Thus, a close bond is formed. The mother-child relationship in Japan is often characterised as one of interdependence or amae (Doi, 1973). The fostering of amae is evidenced in practices such as co-sleeping, co-bathing, and always the child being in close proximity to the mother. Thus, the Japanese value of interdependence is reflected in an infancy that, compared to infancy in western cultures, includes more exclusive maternal care (Barratt, Negayama, and Minami, 1993).

Risk is necessary

We expect our children to be risk-takers. We want them to demonstrate fearlessness. We have names used specifically against those who appear timid or reluctant to try new experiences. Some aspects of play must have an element of risk to be worthwhile. That is why, when the stabilisers are removed from a child’s bike, they are so thrilled when at last they wobble along all by themselves. They know there is a strong possibility that they might fall and get hurt, but the pleasure of this particular adventure outweighs the fear.

Professor Frank Furedi, a sociologist at the University of Kent and author of Paranoid Parenting, (Allen Lane 2001) says, “I’ve been examining this culture of fear for seven years and every year the situation gets worse. Things that weren’t a problem three years ago are today. Before, it was argued that it was unsafe for kids to play alone outdoors. Then they were unsafe playing indoors, so kids were encouraged to sit at a computer. Now there is the risk of paedophiles lurking in chat-rooms. Whatever kids do, there’s a health warning. I passed a park play area recently and for every child on the swings or monkey bars, there were about two adults watching to make sure they didn’t get hurt. There was no chance for the kids to play around and have an adventure because they were under constant surveillance. We no longer think of them as being robust – we now see them as vulnerable and at risk. We think there must be constant adult supervision. But youngsters also need to be taught to be self-sufficient.”

A vulnerable child is one who has been trained to assume that all adults have the right to tell them what to do. The most valuable lesson parents can offer their children is that of self-reliance and the right to be heard when they say, “No”.

Children do worry about aspects of life despite what the adults who love them wish to think. I can remember as a child going to sleep facing the door to my room so that if a burglar came in, he would think I was awake and go away. All the more surprising because my father was a police officer and the house was a police house!

Just because we tell children they don’t need to worry, does not prevent them from doing so. If any parents of young children asked them what they had thought of doing to keep themselves safe if Mummy or Daddy couldn’t get to collect them from school on time, they would be startled by some of the imaginative methods their children might have considered. Discussing safer ways to keep safe would be a better use of their energies.

Most parents believe that they are vigilant and knowledgeable enough to protect their children from abuse from other adults or older children. In most instances, that means that their children are hardly ever allowed to play out of their sight. This is detrimental to the children’s development and relationships with their parents.

Children like risk

It may sound bizarre, but children need to be scared. That is why they choose scary stories at specific ages, or they demand to go on the ghost train at the local fair, or they want to go on the most frightening of rides. Feeling frightened is a healthy aspect of life, provided that it is only ever temporary and that everything is all right in the end. They don’t watch Doctor Who to see the pretty flowers.

We may be in danger of causing actual harm by making the world our children inhabit so safe that they cannot take a step into the great unknown without us. How sad that would be. Maybe it is time to make a stand against red tape and those who try to make us feel guilty if we are not with our children every waking minute of the day. Give them the strategies to look after themselves and keep themselves safe that way, when we let them go out without us, we have armed them with good common sense and the confidence to act on it.

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