Reflections on … childhood adventures, play, risk and freedom

I wonder if the idea of a museum of childhood is a contradiction in terms? A museum is a space for preservation after all, whereas childhood should be a space for unimpeded activities of playful exploring, discarding, abandoning, followed by more play. Yet, childhood makes an indelible mark on our mind’s eye, and, as science tells us, is vividly retained in the brain’s hippocampus. I wonder about education too though, and if in some way we become consumed with preserving particular experiences in the child’s brain (through something we might call a curriculum or through after school clubs), rather than letting young minds explore and create their own free flowing collections of playful experiences to call upon later? It seems that for all our advances, walking to and from school is probably the space that children can call their own and really be Kings and Queens of the road.

Researchers in early childhood suggest that children need experiences in ‘risky play’, arguing that its benefits (e.g., self-confidence and resilience, among other qualities) far outweigh any perceived risks for young learners. I’m fairly sure that the adults in my childhood neither prescribed nor discouraged risky play, but it was certainly part of everyday life, be it on school days or holiday times. At home, my grandfather’s fear was that the youngest would toddle out onto the main road connecting Waterford and Cork. There was a dangerous bend nearby, a site for some car accidents, but learning to cross the road independently, even at a very young age, was part of growing up. Making sure the hens didn’t wander out either was almost of equal importance. In that sense, having the freedom to venture out needed to be balanced with a level of personal responsibility. Footpaths were treasured, but in their absence, learning how to ‘read’ the traffic on rural roads was crucial.

The author and her little brother, leading the hens astray

At school, the 19th century building (which does make me feel very old now when I write that!), was upgraded to include central heating when I was about four years old, and with that, the playground was expanded. This created all kinds of spaces for ballgames, mixed-age circle games as well as quiet spaces to be alone. Come to think of it, ‘breaktime’ was typically referred to as ‘playtime’ and activity was usually fairly intense. Long skipping ropes, roller-skating on the tarmac part, football on the green part, or doing the ‘cat’s turn’ on the crush barrier at the gate were part of these experiences, though we were largely discouraged from going near the ‘caves’ at the far end of the yard. I’m not sure if they were actual caves, but the idea of exploring them during playtime was not of interest in any case, since there were more adventurous places to roam after school. Climbing trees instilled an appreciation of sycamore and oak for the ease of climbing, and whetted the appetite for more curious built structures and castle ruins, and for what might now be called the sport of ‘bouldering’.

However, probably the riskiest play that enthralled us in middle childhood was when the water froze on the local lake. Naturally, we were warned to stay off the ice, but stories of some farmer who walked across the whole lake one winter in eighteen-something served to whet the appetite for adventure and risk. One winter evening, two friends and I thought we’d venture out a yard or so onto a moored rowing boat that was enticingly trapped in the ice. The challenge and excitement lent all sorts of qualities to our ‘playtime’, not least in how it remains in our personal museums of childhood. We were aged about seven or eight at the time, and should have been more ‘responsible’ by then, but the ice broke and one friend slipped into the icy water. Though the water was shallow, her heavy woollen coat got drenched. As the other pair of us tried to keep her warm with our own coats, our greatest anxiety was how we would explain the wet coat, rather than life risk itself. In the end, fortunately, there were no major repercussions. But we quietly knew that we had learned a lesson in water safety. What we didn’t come to realise until much later in life though, was that we’d also learned a lesson about balancing play, risk and shared responsibility.

Despite these adventures, risky play and physical work never competed with academic learning or the wide range of structured and unstructured arts activities that were available in the community. Rather, it seemed as if one necessitated the other in equal measure. Independence complemented interdependence, and the development of each individual child within a thriving, creative community came about through a wide range of interactions across age groups, together with a sense of freedom and responsibility, as I mentioned earlier. We might now refer to the latter as a learning ecosystem of some kind. In time to come, we might try to preserve the learning from these ecosystems not only in museums of memories – but demonstrate the learning in our school designs, town planning, in intergenerational community living and in places where adventures, learning, cultural and social experiences can unfold naturalistically as part of everyday life.

Nowadays, as I piece together the mosaics of children’s learning through my work on educational research, my hope is that such ideas about play can be expressed creatively in our understanding of teaching and learning across the lifespan. And yet, when we think about creative experiences for children and the inherent possibilities within them – it’s good to know that children’s lives can be enriched too when there is space for risk and adventure.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of the Museum of Childhood Ireland.

Regina Murphy is a lecturer at the School of Arts Education & Movement in DCU Institute of Education. Her research interests include creativity in education and inclusive music education contexts. Email: