They want a sense of mastery

The rise of the "soft" option playground has been a big turn off for children who want a bit more rough and tumble, it was claimed at the conference.

The play areas, typified by bright, colourful protective matting and balls in confined areas, are often a source of comfort to parents who fear their young ones could fall and injure themselves. They are also a safe option for local authorities as society becomes more litigious.

But according to Tim Gill, an author and consultant on play, children yearn for something a bit more adventurous. He told delegates that newly-designed play areas were under-used as children turned to making swings and dens in wooded areas near their homes instead.

"Children have an impulse to get to grips with the world around them, they just can't help it," said Mr Gill. "There is something about wanting to feel masterly, to have a sense of power, but we don't give them much opportunity to do that."

In Freiburg, Germany, the city council has created naturalistic playgrounds in place of conventional ones. It has called on local authorities in the UK to follow suit.

Mr Gill said "play rangers" should be appointed in parks to help animate the space by starting activities children feel engaged in - such as building fires and hiding places.

He has worked with the Forestry Commission England to create new outdoor spaces in woodlands for children to play in.

Mr Gill added: "There is nothing to fear from children playing outdoors and in woodlands.

"All learning involves taking a risk, stepping from what's known to what's unknown, and where the outcomes are not guaranteed."

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