Exploring outdoor play: A mixed-methods study of the quality of preschool play environments and teacher perceptions of risky play
Limits to risky play at preschool include teachers’ reluctance, lack of affordances, and safety regulations
Two of the most important factors influencing young children’s outdoor play at preschool are teacher perceptions of play and the quality of outdoor preschool play environments. This study investigated both of these factors in preschool programs serving low-income families in one region of the U.S. The focus of the study was on risky play as an avenue for child growth and development. Two questions framed the study: (1) What opportunities for risky outdoor play do children have in preschool environments serving low-SES families? and (2) What attitudes do preschool teachers have about risky play in these contexts?
Sources of data for this study included a survey completed by 58 early childhood teachers, a focus group discussion involving 10 early childhood teachers, an interview with an Outdoor Learning Environment (OLE) specialist, and observational methodologies. The Tolerance for Risk in Play Scale (TRiPS) – an instrument assessing teachers’ attitudes about risky play – was embedded in the survey. TRiPS consists of 31 survey items with ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers to such questions as “Would you let the child walk on slippery rocks close to water?” and “Would you let the child climb up a tree within your reach?” Questions on TRiPS included reference to six categories of risky play: rough-and-tumble, great heights, high speeds, dangerous tools, dangerous elements, and disappear and get lost. The survey also included five open-ended questions giving teachers an opportunity to share additional thoughts about risky play with young children. Questions addressed during the focus group and OLE specialist interview addressed children’s opportunities for risky play, attitudes and beliefs about risky play, and barriers to risky play. Observational methodologies included use of The Seven Cs rating scale to assess the outdoor play environment quality of ten participating preschools. The Seven Cs Scale considers character, context, connectivity, clarity, change, chance, and challenge of the outdoor play environment.
On average, teachers responded “yes” to only 29% of the questions on the TRiPS, demonstrating a low level of risk acceptance. There were individual differences in risk acceptance, however, with “yes” responses ranging from 3.4% to 76.7%. Of the different risk categories, teachers were most accepting of rough-and-tumble play and least accepting of play involving dangerous tools. “Challenge” was the lowest scoring area of the Seven Cs Scale for playgrounds in this study, demonstrating a lack of risky play opportunities for children. The playgrounds also scored low in “chance”, indicating a lack of opportunities to play with natural materials. While focus group responses indicated that teachers appreciated the value of risky play, they also revealed a disconnect between personal beliefs of what safety precautions were appropriate and existing state regulations. The OLE specialist also commented on tension between safety concerns and the benefits of risk in play.
This study found limited acceptance of risky play among early childhood teachers and a lack of affordances for risky play in the preschools’ playgrounds. Findings also indicate that safety regulations serve as a large barrier to risky play and highlight the need for education at the level of policy developers and teachers. This study highlights the need for preschool teacher education to address the importance and feasibility of risky play in natural environments.