One-to-three-year-olds’ Risky Play in Early Childhood Education and Care
Doctoral thesis, Peer reviewed
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This study examined 1-3-year-olds’ risky play in the context of group settings for Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC). Previous studies have documented that children have a propensity towards risk-taking, and it has been argued that this propensity is valuable for children in several regards. First, because the play experience itself is intrinsically valuable, including experiences of exploration and autonomy, which may allow children to experience emotions such as hesitation, fear, excitement, pleasurable arousal and mastering. Second, several researchers have argued that risky play is essential for developing realistic risk assessment skills. At the same time, there are indications that children are increasingly being deprived of opportunities for exploration and risky play, both to avoid injuries, but also for fear of legal consequences. Since research on 1-3-year-olds’ risky play is scarce, the overarching aim of this study was to add to the existing knowledge of this aspect of children’s play. It was situated in ECEC, since more than 90% of Norwegian children between the ages of 1 and 6 now attend institutionalized care. The overarching aim was split into four areas of investigation: 1) Identifying and describing what characterizes 1-3-year-olds’ risky play, 2) describing what characterizes social interaction between ECEC staff and 1-3 year olds engaged in risky play, 3) describing what characterizes physical conditions for 1-3-year-olds’ risky play in ECEC, and 4) investigating whether there are conflicting aspects in Norwegian ECEC between keeping children safe from harm and stimulating physical activity and risky play. Due to limited existing research, exploratory methods were used to investigate these areas. In cooperation with the large-scale research project Better Provision for Norwegian Children in Early Childhood Education and Care (BePro), five ECEC-center groups were selected to represent a variety of Norwegian ECEC contexts, potentially elucidating different aspects of risky play and children’s experience. Two center groups were selected based on their respective high and low general scores on a standardized measurement of ECEC quality (the Infant/Toddler Environment Rating Scale – Revised edition (ITERS-R)). Additionally, two nature center groups and one infant/toddler group were selected. In total, 53 children and 21 ECEC staff participated in the study. The main methodology was focused ethnography, resulting in both qualitative and quantified data. Video was also used to add detail to the qualitative descriptions. Additionally, quantitative data from the BePro dataset were analyzed. The main findings of this study are divided into four parts following the four areas of investigation. First, children were observed to engage in risky play from one year of age. This finding was interpreted with the theoretical concepts of objective and subjective risk. The first concept addresses observable (sometimes measurable) conditions that entail a possibility of a negative consequence, and the latter addresses how individuals experience these physical conditions. Compared to the existing understanding of risky play, 1-3-year-olds’ expressions of subjective risk were subtler and less extrovert in its appearance, than reported previously. Prominently, the ‘fearful joy’ expressed by older children was not always apparent, especially with the youngest children. Additionally, the risk of injury, i.e., an objective risk was often not evident. The theoretical concept of Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) was also applied to interpret the observations and was useful for, among other aspects, clarifying whether children increased the risk level and discussing potential learning within risky play. In previous research, risky play is categorized with six categories, that is, playing with heights or speed, playing with dangerous tools or near dangerous elements, rough and tumble play and running away/hiding from adults. In this study, two new categories of risky play were suggested; playing with impact (e.g. crashing an object into another) and vicarious risk (a preface of risky play by watching others playing riskily). 1-3-year-olds’ risky play was summarized as play that involves uncertainty and exploration – bodily, perceptual, emotional or environmental – with possible negative outcomes such as fear and/or physical harm, as well as possible positive outcomes such as mastering and/or thrilling experiences. Second, the study found that ECEC staff, in almost equal portions, either did not interact with 1-3 year olds in risky play or supported risky play appropriately. Support was interpreted with the theoretical concept of scaffolding. The large amount of no interaction may relate to risky play’s subtleness and briefness in this age-group, such that recognition and scaffolding requires keen knowledge of individual children and elaborate communicative skills. Comparing the ECEC center groups, the center group with lower general quality, as measured by the ITERS-R, had a higher degree of no interaction. In the center group with higher general quality, there was a higher degree of scaffolding. In general, the amount of inappropriate support (non-scaffolding) was low compared to scaffolding (22% and 78%, respectively). The large proportion of scaffolding might relate to Norwegian practitioners’ culturally positive attitude towards outdoor play and risk-taking. Third, indoor and outdoor environments were examined for their provision for 1-3-year-olds’ risky play, applying the theoretical concept of affordance. In conjunction with descriptions of 1-3-year-olds’ risky play, appropriate affordance was suggested to be versatile, complex and flexible. Appropriate affordance did not necessarily entail an objective risk, such as great heights, but should have aspects of uncertainty and potential for mastering and exhilaration. Again, the exploratory assessment was congruent with the standardized instrument, i.e., the ECEC center group with general low quality, as measured by the ITERS-R, also had less appropriate affordance for risky play compared to the center group with general high quality. Fourth, data from the BePro-project were extracted and analyzed to examine the potential dilemma between appropriate provision for risky play and injury prevention. Suggestively, ECEC center groups that provide well for 1-3-year-olds’ risky play also provide safety, and there is no apparent conflict between the two aspects in Norwegian ECEC, as measured by the ITERS-R. In general, ECEC practitioners in this study appeared comfortable with – and the centers provided moderately well for – 1-3-year-olds’ risky play. However, there was potential for improvements, both with regards to staff’s interaction and physical provision. This thesis provides knowledge that might improve conditions for 1-3 year olds in regards to risky play, as well as their experience in general in ECEC.