How do young children cope in a risk-averse society where perceptions of risk affect their daily lives? What are children's perceptions of risk and how does this influence their play and spacial geographies? I went to find out in a primary school in Leicester, where I conducted a small-scale research project with children to find out where they played and what they were afraid of.
Where children choose to play can be influenced by many factors. Parents may impose physical boundaries of where they think it is safe for their children to play. Practitioners are concerned about children in their care, and ensure play equipment and play spaces meet with health and safety requirements. But what do we really know about children's own perceptions of risk and play? Are we providing the play spaces that children need and want?
Exploring young children's perceptions and the way that they create meaning about the world is a difficult endeavour. We know that children's worlds are socially constructed by their experiences of what they see, hear and feel about the world around them. We also know that each child is unique and, therefore, their social constructs are distinct to their own lived experiences. However, are there common themes that children share in their perceptions, and if so, where do they come from and how does this affect their behaviour and attitudes towards risk and play?
The normal challenges for scholars and practitioners studying young children, such as age, verbal ability and authentic understanding, can be bridged by choosing research methods that empower children and provide a legitimate understanding of children's lives derived from the children themselves. While conducting research with the children in this case study, I chose research methods that allowed children a voice, rather than adult-imposed inferences.
Stemming from child-centred research such as the Mosaic approach conducted by Clark and Moss (2001), I chose a method called photo elicitation and narrative storytelling, whereby the children were given disposable cameras and notebooks and were asked to take photographs of where they liked to play and to draw pictures and maps of places they chose not to play.
The children used the cameras and notebooks to elicit their ideas about risk and play through a participatory focus group interview, where they self-reported interpretations of their own personal geographies. The visual analysis evoked from their photographs and drawings provided insights into their worlds, sharing only what they wanted to about their lives.
In the interview using the children's photographs and notebooks, children appeared more concerned about things outside, rather than in and around, their home environment. There were, though, some exceptions, where children particularly saw the kitchen as a dangerous place to play, and the garden.
'Risky' themes emerged, such as being afraid of strangers, kidnapping, road traffic and dark places. Children showed particular anxiety about strangers and kidnapping, even when playing in and around their home. These two risks were amplified above other perceptions of risk, even though they are the least likely to happen.
Though children saw public spaces as riskier places to play, some of these emerged as playground favourites - the park, woodland, fields and the garden were recorded as the most popular places where children wanted to play. However, the children's photographs and narratives showed that they actually played more in their bedrooms, living rooms, school playgrounds and garden.
Many photographs were taken from the inside of the house looking out, and images of cars and crowded streets also featured significantly in their pictures and photographs. Children indicated they would like more freedom to play in different places and were inclined more to playing outdoors, but felt that they needed to stay close to an adult.
When I was trying to ascertain where their fears came from, some critical issues emerged.
The media had a strong influence on children's attitudes to strangers and kidnapping. One child mentioned Madeleine McCann as being a reason for thinking that they might be taken away. The children recorded being afraid of teenagers and older children in parks and outside spaces, because they thought these older children might hurt them.
Being exposed to crime and having their toys stolen from their house, garden or outside space, which some children had actually experienced, disturbed them also. Children recorded their own self-imposed boundaries, and when playing alone away from adults, it worried them.
The research provided an insight into children's thoughts, fears and realities and found that:
- - Children's spatial personal geographies and freedoms were restricted by their notions of risk and realities.
- - The media amplified children's perception of risk, particularly where there is negative coverage about teenagers and child abduction.
- - Children are becoming more domesticated, preferring to stay inside the home than venture out.
- - Children want more freedom, yet create self-imposed boundaries for fear of risk.
It is clear that children are far more concerned about perceived than about actual risks. Being exposed to the media can create an unnecessarily scary world for children, and perhaps as adults we should be trying to rationalise risks more with children.
Children clearly prefer outside play spaces to play, yet are restricted more and more to the home environment, either by adults or by self-imposed boundaries. Society has a duty to provide open spaces where children feel safe to play. Much more thought should be given to planning and housing families in the UK, as it is in other countries.
Children lack confidence in playing independently of adults, and practitioners in early years settings could give them more time and space away from the gaze of adults, letting children make choices and take control of risks in play. Such a step will build adults' trust and confidence in children, and in turn make children more autonomous. It appears that the children in the case study lack trust in people and spaces. Only by allowing children greater freedom within a safe environment will they gain a more secure view of their worlds.
- Cyndy Hawkins is a senior lecturer in the School of Education, Nottingham Trent University.
FURTHER INFORMATION AND REFERENCES
- Clark, A & Moss, P (2001) Listening to Young Children: the Mosiac approach. London: National Children's Bureau
- Gill, T (2007) No Fear: Growing up in a risk-averse society. London: Gulbenkian Foundation
- Tovey, H (2007) Playing Outdoors Spaces and Places, Risk and Challenge. Maidenhead: Open University Press
All of the children who took part in the research opted in to the study and it was made clear to them that they could choose not to take part or to leave the study at any time. Parental consent was gained on the children's behalf and from the head teacher of the school. The research proposal was passed by the ethics committee at Nottingham Trent University prior to undertaking the research. Children were given copies of the photographs and were told what would happen with the research and why it was important to find out about how children feel about play and risks.
The benefit for the children was allowing them to have a voice in determining what they would like to happen to make their lives safer and allow them more freedoms in their play.