A couple of weeks ago I went to a seminar organised by the newly-formed New Zealand chapter of the International Play Association. This is a great international organisation that seeks to promote play as a fundamental human right for children by enacting Article 31 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child:

That every child has the right to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child and to participate freely in cultural life and the arts.

That member governments shall respect and promote the right of the child to participate fully in cultural and artistic life and shall encourage the provision of appropriate and equal opportunities  for cultural, artistic, recreational and leisure activity.

If you are involved in Early Childhood Education, primary school education, or any other activity that involves engaging with children I would urge you to join the NZ chapter of the IPA, via this page.

The seminar was partially to launch the NZ chapter, but also to discuss issues regarding risk and play. It was very interesting for a variety of reasons, particularly as, for me, it provided a glimpse into the attitudes of Auckland Council and other organisations regarding play, and playgrounds. As a parent it also made me consider my own approach to managing my children’s play, particularly in light of this excellent AUT research regarding parental comfort levels about messy play, ‘dangerous play’ (using hammers and nails, for example), freedom to roam, etc. A lot of the findings are mostly relevant to school-aged children and older – nobody is proposing that three and four year olds should be free to roam their neighbourhoods, and that preventing them from doing so is parental overkill, but overall it made me think about how my husband and I automatically write off outside play on rainy days, for example, when in reality the kids couldn’t care less about getting wet for a while, as long as they’re having fun while doing so. I’m glad to report that we put this attitudinal shift into practice the following weekend, and took the kids to the beach, where they both ended up with wet gumboots and jeans after playing in the surf (but couldn’t care less and didn’t complain at all about being soggy).

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The senior policy advisor representing Auckland Council talked about moving away from ‘boring playgrounds’ (her words, not mine), and towards free play in open, natural spaces. Again, I think a lot of what she was discussing was aimed primarily at school-aged children.

The only seminar content specifically relevant to younger children discussed the Play and Learn Early Education Programmes, which take preschoolers into ‘Nature Kindergartens’ and give them the opportunity to experience unstructured outdoor play. These kindergarten sessions sound fantastic, and I’d recommend checking their website and joining in if you can. However, if that isn’t feasible (and it’s only happening in Auckland from what I can see), take solace in the fact that most kindys seem to be adept at providing children with ample opportunity to engage with nature during their regular session – I know that my children’s kindy has plenty of scope for playing with clay outside, and other lovely things like that.

It is also worth noting that the Nature Kindergartens run by the Play and Learn programme do not take place by busy roads, and the staff that facilitate them obviously have very strong processes in place to manage the risk presented by other hazards – so, the success of these kindergartens is not ‘proof’ that anybody should be able to keep children safe, anywhere!

The one thing that surprised me about the tone of the seminar was the fairly ‘binary’ attitude towards playgrounds, as if children playing in a playground = ‘bad’, low risk play, and free, unstructured, play = the only ‘good’ and valuable play. Surely there is a time and a place for all sorts of play, particularly when dealing with younger children? My children love running around in open spaces on parks or beaches, and they love climbing trees, but they also love discovering a new playground, or testing themselves on a playground where, a month or two earlier, they couldn’t quite manage to climb everything – and suddenly they can! My limited understanding of how children learn (based largely on what I’ve seen from my own kids) is that the opportunity to try things repeatedly is what helps them to learn, and playgrounds provide that opportunity when it comes to challenging themselves physically. I don’t think we should disregard the value they bring to our children’s physical development.

I also found it quite strange to hear an Auckland Council representative describe their own playground assets (which are funded by our rates) as boring. That doesn’t sound like a good return on investment – but, again, perhaps she was discussing playgrounds primarily from the perspective of older children?

Overall, the take-away message for me was that there seems to be limited attention being given to the play needs of younger children. This may help to explain why insufficient attention seems to be given to ensuring that playgrounds are located in safe environments for toddlers and preschoolers.

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