The decrease in children’s independent mobility has limited their opportunities for participating in unstructured outdoor free play (O’Keeffe and O’Beirne, 2015; Bergen and Fromberg, 2015; Buckingham, 2011). According to Leverett (2011), childhood spaces have increasingly become domesticated, insularised and institutionalised, which has restricted children’s opportunity to occupy space without adult surveillance. Wilson believes that “We should value the chance for our children to be overlooked and observed at the same time, the chance that offers them the possibility to discover things for themselves and to come at the world creatively” (Wilson, 2012:35). Centre-based after-school settings have the potential to provide unstructured outdoor play activities for children in a safe environment. This paper will draw on research carried out as part of my PhD research on children’s unstructured play in centre-based after-school settings.
Although widespread throughout mainland Europe, centre-based after-school services are relatively new in the Republic of Ireland (DJELR, 2005). Since the 1990s, there has been an increased demand for non-parental school-age childcare. However, the amount of children attending centre-based after-school settings has remained relatively stable over the last twenty years (Byrne and O’Toole, 2015). Plantenga and Remery (2013) note the lack of attention given to children’s own experience in centre-based childcare settings in Ireland. This study wishes to address this lacuna in scholarship by placing children’s own perspective at the heart of the methodology.
Three centre-based after-schools, which consisted of a total of sixty-nine children between the ages of six and twelve years old, participated in this research. Due to the diversity in age and ability among the participants in the centre-based after-school settings, a mixed method qualitatively driven approach was taken. As a former special needs assistant and a Montessori teacher, I was able to draw on my experience of working with a diverse range of abilities and on my knowledge of creative pedagogical practices to help formulate a research methodology that would be inclusive of all the participants. The methods used during the empirical data collection included participant observations, focus groups, semi-structured and unstructured interviews, artwork and animations. Using a creative approach ensured multiple opportunities for children’s involvement and participation.
Centre-based after-schools cater for a relatively small number of children on a daily basis. The limited number of play-friends available encouraged children to mix across gender and age categories. In this sense, centre-based after-schools are more akin to neighbourhoods than school playgrounds (Thorne, 1993). Once homework was completed, children were encouraged to engage in unstructured free play. According to Frost et al. (2004), both indoor and outdoor spaces are important for children’s play, but outdoor environments provide more opportunities and freedom to be loud and rambunctious. During my observations, the outdoors provided children with the opportunities to play racing games, participate in soccer matches, do gymnastics, play chase and climb trees. Henricks believes that outdoor play promotes gross motor development as “children run, jump, climb, push, pull and otherwise use major muscle groups” (Henricks, 2015: 152). The outdoors provides a wide range of social and material resources for children to engage with, which promotes physical development and social learning (Frost et al., 2004). When outdoors, children had more opportunity to interact with larger groups, move between different playgroups and engage in physical games.
When given the opportunity, children create a special relationship with the outdoors (Frost, 2004; Nabhan and Trimble, 1994; Henricks, 2015; Gill, 2007). Outdoor environments need to be designed in a way that allows children to engage in creative and challenging play activities (Frost, 2004; Brown, 2015). Rasmussen (2004) found that children often relate to and attribute meaning to certain places within their everyday lives, which she calls ‘children’s places’. The emotional meaning children give to their outdoor space often comes into conflict with safeguarding practices within the centres. Thus, children may not always adhere to and play the way adults intended in centre-based after-school settings.
Risk-taking behaviour is an inevitable part of children’s play. Without challenge, players become frustrated and disillusioned and the play itself becomes boring (Goffman, 1961; Caillois, 1961; Csikszentmihalyi and Rathunde, 2014). Csikszentmihalyi and Rathunde use Piaget’s concepts of assimilation and accommodation to explain the balance between skill and challenge. When players become fully immersed in play, the assimilation (skill) and accommodation (challenge) is believed to be in a state of equilibrium. Csikszentimihalyi and Rathunde (2014) believe that the intrinsic motivation to develop is fuelled by the ‘flow experience’. Flow is defined as “the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great costs, for the sheer sake of doing it” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990: 4).
Csikszentmihalyi (1990) believes that the motivating factor for achieving the flow experience is happiness. However, happiness is not sustainable if the play remains static and therefore, the player needs to bring disequilibrium to their activities in order to continue to enjoy the game. As Csikszentmihalyi and Rathunde (2014) point out, “To continue providing optimal experiences, flow activities must constantly be re-created” (Csikszentmihalyi and Rathunde, 2014: 27). Thus, boredom provides a necessary incentive to seek out new and creative challenges that will interrupt the equilibrium and bring about development.
During an observation, one girl (10 years) decided that she was going to jump from the top of the wooden play Ark (approx. 2 meters high) that was situated in the outdoor space of the centre-based after-school. Her risk-taking behaviour soon attracted the attention of the rest of the children playing outside. Some of the children took on the role of reporter and camera crew and gave an up-to-the-minute newsreel of the events as they unfolded. A number of other children acted as the support crew for the jumper and attached ropes that would (in theory) allow her to abseil down the side of the wooden ark. Some of the support crew also placed cushions and pillows on the ground below to help minimise the impact in case of a fall. A group of other children cheered on the jumper chanting ‘jump, jump, jump!’ and one boy (11 years) demonstrates the jump with ease a number of times. One girl (8 years) became distraught, drew a gravestone in the mud, and wailed (producing real tears) at every mention of the imminent jump. For the duration of this event, the players were fully immersed in the play world – a state of play that Csikszentmihalyi (1971; 1990) refers to a ‘Flow’.
Risk-taking or deep play is not about the action, but the state of mind. Children’s experiences of risk are heightened if they step into the ‘second reality’ (Caillois, 1961) and believe that there is danger involved. The real or imagined risk involved in the Ark jump game captured the children’s imagination and allowed a second reality to form among the group. Every player accepted the danger involved and incorporated them into their play-world. The “reporters” operated at a distance from the event, viewing the risk-taking play but not engaging in it. These players were akin to spectators at a match: fully immersed in the atmosphere of the moment but not engaging in the sport. The “jumper” added to the intense atmosphere by playing up her own fears and delaying the inevitable event. She encouraged the “helpers” to manufacture safety equipment from old rope and cushions. While making many attempts to climb over the edge of the Ark, the “jumper” discussed how dangerous the jump would be, which fuelled suspense, fear and excitement among the other players. Some of the other players became part of the cheering squad and encourage the jump, while others allowed the fear to envelop them, which resulted in increased anxiety and tears. Only one child refused to enter the second reality and attempted to shatter the play world by dismissing the risk involved.
Huizinga (1950) makes a distinction between the spoil-sport and the cheat; unlike the cheat, the spoil-sport appears to be part of the play-world, but they shatter the ‘magic circle’ by illuminating its fragility. By dismissing the risk involved, the spoil-sport attempted to create a second play community that flouted the rules of the original play-world. In this instance, the other players refused to take heed or acknowledge the spoil-sports existence, which inevitably isolated him from the game. Huizinga believed that expulsion from the game was the only solution for spoil-sports as their existence in the play-space “robs play of its illusion” (Huizinga, 1950: 11). In the end, it was not the spoil-sport that dissolved the play-world, but a staff member who became aware of the children’s actions and was concerned for their safety.
After-school facilities are environments “created by adults and designated by them as places for children” (Rasmussen, 2004: 155). Within these places for children, space is organised in accordance with the adult’s perspective on what “good” play is and how it should be performed. While the space within after-school settings is regulated by adults, these Macro-structures can be reinforced or challenged by micro-actions. The micro-actions relate to “issues of identity, agency and participation, and more commonly the domain of children” (Wood, 2012: 338).
The institutionalisation of children’s lives has limited their opportunities to participate in risk-taking activities, particularly in outdoor spaces. Safeguarding practices can restrict children’s choice in after-school settings and limit their opportunities to participate in risk-taking behaviour. Centre-based after-school facilities need to continuously provide new and innovative material in both indoor and outdoor spaces that will facilitate physical play.
The lack of clearly defined guidelines for after-schools does a disservice to the sector. As this research found, children participate in a rich diversity of play forms in centre-based after-schools. Through a play-based programme, centre-based after-schools have the possibility of offering an environment that celebrates unstructured but observed forms of play. Centre-based after-schools should not be regarded as a service or a solution to a social problem, but as a play space where children can freely interact with one another under the supervision of trained professionals. Children are citizens in their own right and as such should be entitled to spaces where they can interact with their peers (Moss and Petrie, 2002). Unfortunately, without a clear sense of identity, these settings will continue to deliver an ad hoc service.
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Annie Cummins successfully defended her thesis Ag Súgradh: An analysis of children’s play experience in after-school settings in Ireland in October 2017. She has worked as an early years practitioner in Ireland for ten years, first as a classroom assistant for children with special needs and then as a Montessori teacher. She now lectures on Childhood for St. Nicholas Montessori College in Cork. She is a part-time lecturer at University College Cork delivering modules on childhood and education. She also lectures on Social Science as part of the BA in Journalism course at Griffith College Cork.