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The Importance Of Play For Children

By David Petherick, CEO Australian Camps Association

The importance of play for children

In August I had the great privilege of visiting the Westgarth Bush Kinda. A program that for a half a day each week takes the kindergarten into some local bushland. It was a cold and wintery and wet day but the children were all dressed in gumboots and warm clothing and, unlike me, seemed oblivious to the weather.

It was fantastic to watch them just play. There were no manufactured games or equipment – only what the kids could find on the ground and their well exercised imaginations. I watched quietly for an hour as they invented games, jumped in puddles and built cubby houses out of sticks and branches they found lying on the ground.

Some of the fondest memories from my childhood are of doing similar things with my friends – exploring the world without unnecessary adult intrusion. This was one of the great skills that the teachers and volunteers brought to the program – their supervision was watchful but very unobtrusive.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) in the UK (their version of WorkSafe in Australia) has recognized the importance of play for children and the potential for unreasonable concerns over safety to negatively impact on opportunities for play and have released a statement called “Children’s play and leisure: promoting a balanced approach”.

In it they say that “Health and safety laws and regulations are sometimes presented as a reason why certain play and leisure activities undertaken by children and young people should be discouraged. Such decisions are often based on misunderstandings about what the law requires. The HSE has worked with the Play Safety Forum to produce a joint high-level statement that gives clear messages tackling these misunderstandings. HSE fully endorses the principles in this Statement.

This statement makes clear that:

  • Play is important for children’s well-being and development
  • When planning and providing play opportunities, the goal is not to eliminate risk, but to weigh up the risks and benefits
  • Those providing play opportunities should focus on controlling the real risks, while securing or increasing the benefits – not on the paperwork
  • Accidents and mistakes happen during play – but fear of litigation and prosecution has been blown out of proportion

Tim Gill, a UK based academic who has written widely on the benefits of play for children and who as spoken in Australia a number of times in the past two years, responded to this statement in his blog at ‘Rethinking Childhood’ by saying that:

The statement starts with a thumbs-up for adventurous, challenging play. It says that play allows children and young people to “explore and understand their abilities; helps them to learn and develop; and exposes them to the realities of the world in which they will live, which is a world not free from risk but rather one where risk is ever present.” It recognises that “children will often be exposed to play environments which, whilst well-managed, carry a degree of risk and sometimes potential danger.” And it encourages schools, councils and others to “deal with risk responsibly, sensibly and proportionately.”

I commend this approach to the relevant authorities in Australia and I hope they take a similar big picture view of the development of children and that we start to see better responses than the current approach which often seems to be overly risk averse. In a previous column I mentioned that Mt Eliza Primary School in Victoria had banned running in the playground. Another Mornington Peninsula Primary School was this year ridiculed in the media for banning ball games before and after school because they were afraid children might get hurt.

These are not balanced or sensible responses to risk and we need to continue to speak out against them when and if they occur for the sake of our children.

David Petherick


Australian Camps Association

(03) 9430 2900

David was appointed as the CEO of the Australian Camps Association in 2006. He is convinced that camps and outdoor programs help young people understand and develop leadership and respect for themselves, others and the environment.

David was also a Professional Educator who majored in physical education and was a youth worker for 10 years.