Risk and Our Pedagogical Relation to Children On the Playground and Beyond

Risk and Our Pedagogical Relation to Children On the Playground and Beyond

Risk and Our Pedagogical Relation to Children: On the Playground and Beyond was written by Stephen J. Smith and published in 1998 by State University of New York Press. The author seeks to answer questions about children’s experiences on the playground regarding the riskiness of children’s lives, their sense of risk, and the involvement of adults that he calls the pedagogical relation to children.

Although recognizing that children face risks beyond the playground, the author focuses on the playground as a place where children are encouraged to take risks by their peers as well as, at times, by adults who take them there. Swinging higher, climbing higher on playground equipment, and other activities on the playground that initially cause fear, feel risky to children until they gradually accept the challenges and gain confidence in their abilities.

The book is divided into four parts: Locating a Pedagogy of Risk (Chapter 1), An Awareness of Risk (Chapters 2-3), A Responsiveness to Risk (Chapters 4-6), and the Educational Significance of Risk (Chapter 7-9).

In Chapter 1 “Introduction,” the author describes risk taking as being open to danger or hurt, to take a chance or a gamble, and to face a degree of uncertainty and inability to control fully the outcomes or consequences of such an action. Some risk takers are adventurous and thrill-seeking, while others deal more with emotional, social, and intellectual risks.

The hardest risk for caretakers is to let children take chances to allow them to experience the personal growth and maturation resulting from successful risk taking. Allowing children to encounter the unknown and experience uncertainty causes the children to dig deep within themselves to test the limits of their resources. Taking risks leads children to better understand themselves and the world around them. Adults must keep two things in mind: they have an adult view of risk, which the child has yet to learn, and that risk is good for the child in the light of the child’s growth towards maturity.

The author describes pedagogy as the practice of being with children with the intention of guiding them towards becoming mature adults. This requires tact and thoughtfulness in observing situations children find themselves in and determining what should be done for them to successfully face the risks, including what restraint should be shown as children become increasingly responsible for their own actions.

Chapter 2 “The Place of Risk” explores the playground as a place that is designed for letting children take risks. Historically, the playground was derived from a concern for the safety of children and for their proper supervision, and this concern points to a certain awareness of risk in children’s lives. Rather than seeing risk as a danger or a hazard, adults need to recognize the playground positively as a place for challenge and adventure to expand the child’s sense of the world. The playground is the fundamental ground for understanding what risk-taking means.

Chapter 3 “The Silence of Risk” suggests that when observing risky situations children may be involved in, the procedure for silence could be defined as listening to children, observing them closely, and taking care in approaching their activity. Each situation may warrant a different response including trusting the children to deal with the risk themselves.

Chapter 4 “The Atmosphere of Risk” considers the dynamics of the adult-child relationship as a reflection of the risk in everyday life. The playground brings a security to the child’s explorations, sustaining their movement toward greater independence. Children can be helped to take risks in relative safety through the encouragement adults give them and through the way adults encounter playground challenges with them. The playground appeals to children, because it allows them to step away from adult protectiveness and thus to feel somewhat responsible for what they do. The supportive reaction by adults can help them gain confidence in doing things for themselves.

Chapter 5 “The Challenge of Risk” looks at the various challenges that are inherent in playground activity. Challenges of daring from peers to try some new activity are direct social challenges. There are also indirect challenges that arise from simply observing other children or seeing an activity on a piece of equipment a child might want to attempt. With positive challenges, adults can carefully encourage children to go beyond their comfort level to attempt an activity that would enhance their confidence and independence of movement.

Chapter 6 “The Encounter with Risk” explores the uncertainty of adults in responding to children’s risky situations. Adults must reconcile their need to lend security to children’s explorations with the children’s need to test the security of their own world. There is a point at which the encounter with risk obliges adults to let the children go their own way and trust them to be on their own rather than intervening.

Chapter 7 “The Practice of Risk” considers the ordered exercise of children’s inclinations to accept challenges of risk to increase their ability on a particular activity. Repeated attempts to overcome a fearful challenge may be accomplished in a progression of mastering easy to more difficult steps to perform the task. What may seem like a development of motor skills is also a practice in taking risks to accomplish the challenge. Repeatedly experiencing a risky situation without harm allows the familiarity of the activity to ease the fear.

Chapter 8 “The Possibility of Risk” examines the practice of risk beyond the playground when the risks on the playground are achieved and children move away from it. Beyond the domain of the playground, risk is a means to other ends such as movement competence, self-knowledge, self-confidence, autonomy, and self-direction.

Chapter 9 “Practical Insights” summarizes the study contained in this book with insights in working with children and recognizing the tension between respecting children’s experiences and knowing what is good for them. In summary, the relation requires adults:

  • to have a close and careful observation of children;
  • to question their approach to each and every child;
  • to have a thoughtfulness of how maturity comes to the child;
  • to see and articulate challenges for the child;
  • to know when to leave the child alone;
  • to be in practice with the child; and
  • to follow the child in risk-taking activities beyond the playground.1
  • 1. Smith, Stephen J. Risk and Our Pedagogical Relation to Children: On the Playground and Beyond. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press. 1998.