This article explores a current paradigmatic transition from a protectionist perspective to one that emphasises opportunities for children’s increased participatory play experiences within Irish early childhood education and care contexts. It makes the case for the benefits of play and acknowledges children’s rights to play and particularly to participate in challenging or “risky” play. The changing culture of ECEC in Ireland is acknowledged as influenced by external structures on children’s opportunities for play and learning. In this regard the impact of key policies including Aistear, Síolta and the initiative “Better Start” are explored. As such the focus is on structural transitions rather than transitions as experienced in the lives of children and their families.

A landmark in how children are viewed in Ireland has been a recognition of all children from birth to age eighteen as citizens with rights (United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child 1989 ratified by Ireland 1992) including the right to engage in play (Article 31). While there is no universally accepted definition of play, the process of play has become intrinsically linked with social and cultural theories of learning and development (Bruner 2008). However, children’s access to the affordances of play is dependent on adult gatekeepers, whose social and cultural attitudes to play will impact on how such experiences are mediated in home and out-of- home contexts. Kernan and Devine (2010, p. 371) observe that

One feature of modernity has been the institutionalising of childhood space — the demarcation of specific places within which children are gathered, primarily for the purposes of play, learning and ‘caring’.

Greater female participation in the workforce has increased demand for out-of-home care. Recent research suggests that children in Ireland on average spend less time outdoors than the daily one hour afforded prison inmates (Brennan as cited by Bray 2016). Various reasons have been suggested for the decline in outdoor activities, including the growing proliferation of indoor screen- based technologies. Recently, concerns around long-term physical and mental health, and rising obesity levels in young children has focused attention on increasing children’s outdoor play and physical activities (Sandsetter 2012, Maynard and Waters 2014). This article adopts a holistic focus on children’s right to engage in play, with an emphasis on experiences within indoors and outdoors ECEC contexts prior to formal schooling. Recent transitions in the early years sector are discussed alongside implications for children’s opportunities to actualise play affordances in ECEC.

 Play matters in early childhood

The ubiquitous nature of play in children’s lives is summed up by Cole-Hamilton and Gill, (2002, p.14):

Children play wherever they are. This might be indoors or out. Children play in their home, at school, in childcare and play provision, and in the public and private places they visit with their friends or with adults.

Trevarthan’s studies (2004) indicate that children’s intrinsic motives for playful collaborative meaning making commence in earliest infancy. This understanding is elaborated through analysis of early “meta-conversations” where infants have been shown to respond to, as well as elicit the liltingly playful interactions of parents and close carers, often described as “motherese”.

In Ireland, an historical expectation for parents to provide for children in the early years has meant that out-of-home care and education has developed in an ad hoc way with a mixture of voluntary, community and private providers. This market-based model has been critiqued for high costs, identified by Barnardo’s and Start Strong (2012) as some of the most expensive in Europe. Workers in the sector have also been campaigning against the low status, pay and conditions within the profession (Association of Childhood Professionals 2016). Education and care prior to primary school is mostly regulated by Tusla which is a child and family agency, under the remit of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. The Department of Education and Skills has also started to inspect preschools. Responsibility for primary school education lies with the Department of Education. A division in policy and practice is reflected in the higher qualifications, pay, status and working conditions associated with primary schooling. In 2010, investment in ECEC prior to formal school underwent a major transition with the introduction of the ECCE free preschool scheme (Department of Children and Youth affairs 2013b). The universal nature of the scheme was welcomed yet also critiqued, for the continued lack of emphasis or supports for children in the vital birth to three stage of development.

However, Aistear, the early years framework (National Council for Curriculum and Assessment 2009) does emphasise the importance of supporting holistic development for all children from birth to age six. The emergent and dynamic nature of the framework involved considerable research and engagement with literature on national and international best practice. Síolta (2006), the national quality framework, reflects similar aspirations and principles for children from birth to age six. The image of the child is one of an active playful learner developing and responding within multiple cultural contexts both indoors and outdoors). Hayes (2010) emphasises the importance of the mediating role of the early years professional in supporting children’s emerging dispositions and learning interests. Increasingly, the significance of outdoor play in support of children’s holistic development, has been identified in research (Maynard and Waters 2014). Both understandings are implicit in the interpretation of Aistear and Síolta.

Balancing the right to protection with the right to experience ‘risky play’

The affordances of early years environments have been linked to both the qualifications of early year’s professionals and individual pedagogical abilities to recognise play affordances (Kernan 2010). The preschool regulations primary focus on health and safety over the provision of holistic developmental benefits has been critiqued by Start Strong (2012). New preschool regulations (DCYA, 2016) set minimal qualifications (level 5 on the National Qualifications Framework) for all staff working directly with children in ECEC contexts. This benchmark is arguably low given that research evidence of high quality adult/ child interactions in ECEC has consistently been linked to engagement of highly qualified staff with opportunities for ongoing education and training (Melhuish 2004). Current expectations and increased responsibilities for ECEC staff to implement Aistear and Síolta remain at odds with the low qualifications requirement and the lack of paid non-contact time to upskill and experience ongoing training and development.

Adult attitudes to the Irish weather have also been identified as a barrier to children’s opportunities to experience outdoor play, commonly associated with challenging and stimulating affordances (Kernan and Devine 2010). A lack of emphasis at regulatory level on provision or planning for outdoor space has also been critiqued. New regulations now require all early year’s settings to provide suitably “safe and secure” outdoor spaces for all children to have access to on a daily basis (DCYA, 2016).

“Risky play” affordances contain both emotional and physical aspects and by inference require space and place which provides a balance between the right to protection and the right to participate. Stephenson (2003, p.36) defines “risky play” as: “attempting something never done before; feeling on the borderline of out-of- control – often because of height or speed; and overcoming fear.” An aspect of risky play relates to how much adults participate in acknowledging children as citizens with rights and expertise in their own lives in the here and now (Clerkin 2014).

Balancing play, risk and challenge

Bridging gaps between policy and practice

Aistear and Síolta are not compulsory. However, their increasing use in both pre-primary and primary schooling has been observed and both frameworks have been received positively in Ireland and abroad (Murphy 2015). A higher capitation afforded to services implementing the ECCE scheme establishes new minimum qualifications for ECEC workers, with no such provision for children in the birth to three age group. In 2014 attempts to address the continued lack of initiatives for the youngest children, and media reporting of the poor quality and treatment of children in some settings led to the establishment of “Better Start” (DCYA 2016), a national quality development service. Its main function is to provide mentoring supports for services to address quality concerns identified in Tusla inspection reports. However, issues of qualifications, pay and conditions for ECEC workers remain contentious.

Paradigmatic transition from protectionism to increased participation?

Despite recent transitions in ECEC at policy level in Ireland, a top down tendency still reflects policy implementation indicative of a view that the older the child, the more worthy of investment. The impacts are manifold, including the financial constraints on early years settings to engage, retain and support highly qualified staff to implement Aistear and Síolta and initiatives such as Better Start. A primarily protectionist view of childhood associated with a custodial level of care rather than the promotion of children’s holistic development in the early formative years is indicated within the low qualifications benchmark of the preschool regulations.

At a societal level we need to challenge the low pay and status of the early year’s professional role. Research on practitioner attitudes to outdoor play also indicate a need, at training level, to encourage all students to challenge personal attitudes to play, risk and play affordances. The vital mediating role of the early years professional requires informed practice in order to address parental and societal concerns on balancing children’s right to protection with the right to participation in suitably challenging and risky play. The risk of not doing so may be too high.