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On your bike! Annie O’Sullivan shares lessons learned in risk

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Annie O’Sullivan is an early childhood educator and mentor of 30 years experience who now shares her knowledge, with a colleague, as the Early Years Education Specialists. Annie lectures part time at Wollongong University and recently graduated from Macquarie University with a Master of Early Childhood. In today’s story, Annie celebrates her experience of embracing risky play by listening carefully to children and finding ways to say Yes, when sometimes No seems the easiest option.

Are you a helicopter educator? Image: Annie O’Sullivan

Are you a helicopter educator?

“Stop running!” “We don’t play with sticks!” “You can’t play in there we can’t see you!” “Be careful!” “Come down, it’s too dangerous!”

Sound familiar? Is this what you hear yourself or other educators saying when children are playing in your outdoor space?

Are you a helicopter educator keeping children wrapped in cotton wool? Do you want to move on but don’t know how to start? Often educators are worried that ‘The Regs’ say no, or find they cannot get past colleague resistance with ‘we’ve always done it that way’.

Yet it’s impossible to ignore that the challenge and thrill of risky play is something children desire and actively seek.

According to a leading expert and researcher into risky play, Professor Ellen Sandseter, from Queen Maud University College of Early Childhood Education in Trondheim, Norway there are six characteristics of risky play that children desire and actively seek:

  1. Play with great heights
  2. Play with high speed
  3. Play with harmful tools
  4. Play near dangerous elements
  5. Rough‐and‐tumble play
  6. Play where the children can ‘disappear’ or get lost.

How many of these are present at your service?

Choices and control

The National Quality Standard encourages educators to allow children to make choices and have control so that they learn about assessing and managing appropriate risks.

The Early Years Learning Framework proposes that outdoor learning spaces invite risk-taking. So why are we, as educators, so risk averse? Why do we have an overemphasis on safety and use the Regulations and the Australian culture of litigation to impact on our curriculum decision making?

Ironically, the Guide to National Quality Framework encourages educators to consider the benefits as well as risks by stating that ECE services:

“…must be able to provide evidence to the authorised officer, that they have weighed the obligation to protect children from harm against the benefit of providing children with a stimulating play environment” (Guide to the NQF p368)

On your bike!

Let me share a story with you that taught me a lot about embracing risk.

During a week when the preschool children brought their bikes and scooters to our service, one of the children asked, “Can we go down to the bike track? We can go much faster there?”

I could have said, “you can go just as fast here!” or, “Oh no, we can’t do that. You’ll have to do that on the weekend with your family”.

Instead, I discussed the suggestion with the children and I documented their thoughts. As they are accustomed to attending a service that regularly heads outside the gate on walking excursions, the children were convinced that going on bikes would be just the same.

At first, our team of educators were horrified.

How could we possibly take twenty children, aged three to five, riding their bikes or scooters down to the bike track over one kilometre away? Good question!

Following the necessary risk assessment and a lively but professional team conversation, we collectively decided that the benefits far outweighed the risks. We would try it – at least once.

The children’s families were enthusiastic and two parents offered to join us. So we set off in our fluoro vests and helmets riding in one long conga line down the footpath to the bike track.

A passing police car stopped. Was it a problem? No! The police officers were congratulating us on a great initiative. Members of the public we met responded similarly.

Some children who had never ridden that far needed help, and we saw great improvements in their skills along the way.

At the bike track, we spoke with the children and all agreed on the rules and then …… freedom!

They rode with the wind in their hair, they rested, they swapped vehicles when they wanted more of a challenge, or not as much.

The joy and delight were visible, as well as audible. Years later, trips to the bike track by this service remain valuable learning experiences that invite safe risk taking by both children AND educators.

All it took was an active response to the voice of a child.

Learn by listening

This story from my professional life demonstrates very well the ‘how’ of providing an outdoor learning space that is both challenging and stimulating in any Early Childhood setting.

  • Really listen to the child’s voice. Encourage them to photograph what is important to them or draw their ideal outdoor space. Have discussions about their ideas. Listen and respond. Observe their play. Trust in their capabilities. As the prime users of the outdoor space, their insights are crucial.
  • Create an Action Research project to explore your outdoor environment and educator’s practice and understandings. Involve children, families and current research to gain a transparent and deeper understanding of provisions and practices.
  • Use and document risk/benefit assessments. Critically reflect as a team and with the children about the risks and benefits of a new activity or process before making a decision. By documenting this assessment you will have evidence to provide if required, and you’ll also be able to easily update it on reflection. Read the National Regulations carefully – sometimes we overreact or rely on hearsay about ‘The Regs’.
  • Develop and implement a Play Policy which reflects your service’s unique values and understanding of risky play and its benefits. Ensure the policy is informed by the National Regulations, your service philosophy, a range of current research and thinking, and the voices of all stakeholders.
  • Seek professional learning opportunities for guidance and to extend your knowledge and skills.
  • Explore research. For example, my published article here.
  • Network with other services to critically reflect and gain ideas.
  • Venture beyond the gate to seek further opportunities for risky play.

Now, your service and educators are ready for children to climb the tree in your outdoor space. Or use real hammers and nails. Or play in that secret place up in the back corner. Or, who knows: a fire pit, maybe?

The possibilities are endless.

Annie O'Sullivan

I have over thirty years’ experience in the EC profession working as an Early Childhood Teacher/Nominated Supervisor in a variety of capacities, including a mobile preschool and co-owner/operator of a long day care service. Currently, I facilitate professional learning opportunities and policy development with a colleague as the 'Early Years Education Specialists' and teach part time as a lecturer in the Early Years degree at Wollongong University. I have recently graduated from Macquarie University with a Master of Early Childhood and have had a paper published in the Asia-Pacific Journal of Research in Early Childhood Education titled ‘Educator Decision Making about Outdoor Learning Spaces in Early Childhood Education and Care Services’. I have been very fortunate to travel widely and visit many early childhood services worldwide, especially in Africa and Asia. This has reinforced that the care and education of young children is the responsibility of the whole community. As an old African proverb says “It takes a village to raise a child”. So too with educators. We need to share our knowledge, skills and experiences to ignite enthusiasm, challenge the status quo and think outside the box so that all children receive the best possible education and care. As Nelson Mandela said “Our children are our greatest treasure. They are our future.”

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