“Children are precious cargo; we don’t let them take any risks!”: Hearing from adults on safety and risk in children’s active play in schools: a systematic review

Alethea Jerebine, Katie Fitton-Davies, Natalie Lander, Emma L. J. Eyre, Michael J. Duncan, Lisa M. Barnett

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

8 Citations (Scopus)
44 Downloads (Pure)


Abstract: Background: Understanding determinants of children’s outdoor play is important for improving low physical activity levels, and schools are a key setting for both. Safety concerns shape children’s opportunity to play actively outdoors, therefore, this qualitative evidence synthesis aimed to i) examine adult (e.g., parent, teacher, yard supervisor, principal) perspectives on safety and risk in children’s active play during recess in elementary and/or middle schools, and ii) identify how safety and risk influence playground supervision and decision making in this setting. Methods: Six electronic databases were systematically searched in March 2021, with an updated search in June 2022. Records were screened against eligibility criteria using Covidence software, and data extraction and synthesis were performed using predesigned coding forms in Microsoft Excel and NVivo. Framework synthesis methodology was employed, guided by a conceptual framework structured on the socio-ecological model (SEM) and affordance theory. Results: From 10,370 records, 25 studies were included that represented 608 adults across 89 schools from nine countries. The synthesis identified 10 constraining and four affording factors that influenced whether school staff were risk-averse or risk tolerant during recess, and, in turn, the degree to which children’s play was managed. Constraining factors stemmed from fears for children’s physical safety, and fear of blame and liability in the event of playground injury, which shaped parent, school staff and institutional responses to risk. Interrelated factors across SEM levels combined to drive risk-averse decision making and constraining supervision. Emerging evidence suggests children’s active play in schools can be promoted by fostering a risk tolerant and play friendly culture in schools through play facilitation training (e.g., risk-reframing, conflict resolution) and engaging stakeholders in the development of school policies and rules that balance benefits of play against potential risks. Conclusions: Findings show several socio-cultural factors limited the ability of school staff to genuinely promote active play. Future work should seek to foster risk tolerance in schools, challenge the cultural norms that shape parent attitudes and institutional responses to risk in children’s play, and explore novel methods for overcoming policy barriers and fear of liability in schools. Trial registration: PROSPERO registration: CRD42021238719.
Original languageEnglish
Article number111
Number of pages22
JournalInternational Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity
Early online date1 Sept 2022
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2022

Bibliographical note

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  • Review
  • Risky play
  • Physical activity
  • Recess
  • Socio-ecological model
  • Qualitative
  • Risk tolerance


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