The water is cloudy, dark and uninviting. The mud is deep with a mix of sharp twigs and snake- patterned slugs. The pathways are threatening with holly and thorns crossing your way with pieces of glass buried between the tree roots. The sun is hot piercing through the canopies above, tingling the back of your neck. The rescued orange and white lady-bug is known to be poisonous, balancing on a finger in admiration.

Is this ‘child-friendly’? Probably not by the sounds of it. But the local nature reserve makes a bloody good place for a picnic and a paddle. What our society thinks is the best places for children, may not be, all of the time. I read in a flyer for our local play-spaces in Bath and North East Somerset, a mum talking about her family’s favourite playground. “…the way it’s designed is so child-friendly’ -it means the children can play independently and do their own thing”

We speak of ‘child-friendly’ being safe, stimulating places that means an adult isn’t watching like a hawk. Is every playground child-friendly then? Do you hear of someone saying that they won’t go to a playground because its just too dangerous? Some adventure playgrounds have fire-pits, muddy swamps, considerable drops, loose parts with nails and hammers for the kids to help themselves to. Even the more tame playgrounds that are kitted out with ‘safe’, predictable equipment could be next to a fast road, a deep pond could be on the other side of the hedge, there may be access to the space which isn’t in full view of the picnic table ect ect!!

Bla bla bla, I could go on about what could be safe and what may not, but as Playworkers we will agree that safe and reliable spaces aren’t the best for play, they’re more parent-friendly than in the child’s best interest. The pond with the insects, the sticks, the mud, the dead tree trunks… This is more valuable in terms of play because they are exploring something that is REAL, not predictable and tests their boundaries. An educator could argue this is an opportunity for learning about nature and the elements, but maybe there’s a time and place for it. Whereas what are they learning in a space that has been catered for the needs and anxieties for the nervous parent. A playworker would argue the pond is lovely jubbly ‘risky-play’. Its testing their limits and they’re experiencing sensory sensations with the unpredictable temperatures, the coping strategies of getting cuts, bruises, seeing an insect with a leg missing… To me, its nothing abnormal, its just life.

Some adults may be restrictive because of the spaces they are used to taking their children to, the attitudes towards what is ok for them to play with and where we should box them up into corners and designated areas – this is where adults then feel anything else wouldn’t be safe and acceptable.
But now and then I’ll see a very safe, new adventure playground, still a bit ‘too much’ for some anxious adults. Today, a two year-old being told not get too near the water pump and then pulled away when dis-obeying. (This being probably the least-risky opportunity for water-play there is!)

I believe those children who are accessing a variety of space and taking all levels of risk are having a wide balance of play experiences.
We need to rethink this phrase of ‘child-friendly’. Its maybe a term you use in a restaurant, but not for a play space.