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LEADERSHIP

Snowballs and Soccer Games

By Bruce Gilbert
19-Jun-24
Snowballs and Soccer Games


Snow has fallen overnight. Snow is unusual here, the snow-covered playground an unlikely and enticing sight. The children arrive to school ready-coats, hats, mitts, and boots. The hall is abuzz. Could they play outside in the snow for a while? Not everyone’s so keen. School begins as always with morning announcements. The principal’s intercom message packs a warning. “Snowball throwing is not allowed,” she reminds us all. “Somebody could get hurt.” Morning recess comes, and the snowballs fly. Afterwards, the main office is clogged with snow-suited, sodden-mitted, weathered but happy warriors of the snow waiting to see what price they’ll pay for the fun they’ve had.    

Spring, and the soccer field is clear and dry. The principal reminds us all to “be kind playing soccer. Somebody could get hurt.” Recess soccer games are competitive with tackles and arguments and anger – just like real soccer. Sometimes players are flagged by a monitor and end up in the main office. But usually, the children meander in after recess, pausing to emphasize a point in the group’s dispute about the game. They are able to argue, but unable yet to cross the line between competition and compromise.

Playground behaviour comes up from time-to-time in staff meetings. Discussions and questions are few. There is general agreement with rules and the necessity of ensuring pupil safety. Outdoor play is closely supervised and tightly controlled. Sticks and heights, climbing and jumping, grabbing and wrestling, aggressive tackles and chucked snow – not allowed. Otherwise, somebody could get hurt.

While well-meaning, setting fixed and restrictive rules for children’s outdoor recess play is a mistake. Stifling natural play robs it of its spontaneity and creativity, of its contribution to children’s development. It is argued, an argument supported by research, that children’s recess play should be free, that supervision should be relaxed, that “risky” play is okay, beneficial even. That play is essential for children’s physical development and wellbeing is a generally held understanding among educators. Play opportunities are included within the regular academic day. What is not often recognized are the benefits of free or “risky” play. Rather, rules for and supervision of play are intended to ensure safety and thus limit risk. Lost are powerful learning events, chances for children to decide for themselves what they can and cannot do in play, to execute, and reassess before going on. Underlying this play, is the risk of failure and injury and so the need to manage fear or anxiety. Risky play is a rich training ground for children’s physical, cognitive, and social-emotional skills development (Canadian Pediatric Society, 2023).

Types of risky play include play at height, at speed, with tools, and rough and tumble play. Rough and tumble play covers much of prohibited outdoor play. Children can get hurt wresting, play fighting, throwing snowballs at each other, kicking at soccer balls, that’s true. But, it is important to point out that risky play is not hazardous play. Play in situations in which the potential for injury is beyond the child’s capacity to recognize or manage, where children cannot assess for themselves the dangers involved is hazardous; on a busy road or unstable playground equipment, for example. A hazardous risk is impossible for children to manage. Hazardous play has no place at recess, risky play does.

Research results confirm the physical, mental, and social benefits of risky, outdoor play (Beaulieu & Beno, 2024; Brussoni, et. al., 2015). Access to risky play opportunities increases levels of moderate to vigorous physical activity per day and decreases sedentary time. Children engaging in risky play become more adept at risk-assessment and at fundamental movement skills. Risky play at school contributes to engagement in physical endeavours outside of school and later on in life. This play is not a source of serious injury. Children are much less likely to require medical attention due to an injury from outdoor recess play than they are playing organized sports. Challenges and risks in children’s play can be positive for their mental health, actually reduce reports of aggressive behaviour and bullying, and build resilience and conflict resolution skills. Studies have also associated rough-and-tumble play with better problem-solving scores. Research indicates that risky play develops social-emotional skills and contributes to a sense of belonging. The ability to communicate, cooperate, and compromise with others improves in situations where children can test and push their own limits. Risky play exposes children to fear-provoking situations, providing them with opportunities to experiment with uncertainty and coping strategies and thereby reduce anxiety. All this supports the view that strict “somebody could get hurt” playground rules are misguided.  

In many ways, the recess snowball fight is a perfect example of rough and tumble, risky play. The children are playing at something outside their regular experience without knowing what the outcome will be. They evaluate the challenge and gauge their actions based on their perceived skills and their willingness to take a chance. Those whose self-assessment is high charge boldly ahead. Others follow not as confident but still into an area of risk, testing their limits, finding their limits as others’ snowballs find them. Some stop to reassess, others push on. At the end of it, the children are tired, happy, undefeated, and sitting patiently to find out the price for defying the principal’s warning. Was it worth the risk?

 

References

Brussoni, M, et al. What is the relationship between risky outdoor play and health in children? A systematic review. Int. J. of Environ. Res. Public Health 2015, 12, 6423-6454.

Canadian Public Health Association, Healthy childhood development through outdoor risky play: Navigating the balance with injury prevention (https://www.cps.ca/en/documents/position/outdoor-risky-play), January 25, 2024.

 

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For the past 30 years, Bruce Gilbert has worked as a teacher, Educational Psychologist, and School Head in international schools in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. He holds teaching credentials, graduate degrees in special education, counselling, and school administration, and a doctorate in educational psychology. He has retired from international education with the opportunity now to research and write about topics that have interested him over the years. Subjects include international school leadership, instruction, and children with academic and behavioral challenges.




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