Uncertainty in the school playground: shifting rationalities and teachers’ sense-making in the management of risks for children with disabilities

Grace Spencer*, Anita Bundy, Shirley Wyver, Michelle Villeneuve, Paul Tranter, Kassia Beetham, Jo Ragen, Geraldine Naughton

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    11 Citations (Scopus)


    Recent theoretical debates highlight the competing risk logics and varying rationalities mobilised in response to dangers and approaches to risk management. Yet the concept of uncertainty, and how it informs perceived risks, is relatively less well understood. Debates of this kind are illuminated in contexts where risks are managed as part of everyday practice. The school setting provides an example of a context in which risks are continuously negotiated amidst dominant protectionist concerns about children’s well-being and safety. Such protectionist concerns are particularly pronounced for children with disabilities, as assumptions about limited capabilities complicate and structure the everyday play experiences for children. Drawing on findings from the Sydney Playground Project, in this article we aim to unpack the felt discomfort experienced by school staff in their responses to uncertain moments in children’s play. We report qualitative data collected from two schools between October 2014 and September 2015 using video observations of children’s play and teachers’ responses to an online Tolerance of Risk in Play Scale. Our findings point to the competing logics and forms of sense-making operationalised by teachers to manage the unknown. Our analysis explored the ways in which risk strategies were (re)framed by school staff and such reframing explained their action (or inaction) in the playground and how these were underpinned by concerns about professional accountabilities. Their responses located risks within the child with disabilities, rather than the play activity itself. Another approach to uncertainty can be achieved by mobilising a discourse of trust in which ‘letting-go’ offers children opportunities to reflexively engage in risk-taking.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)301-317
    Number of pages17
    JournalHealth, Risk and Society
    Issue number5-6
    Publication statusPublished - 17 Aug 2016


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