By CELA on 19 Mar, 2018

As autumn weather arrives, many ECE and OSHC services will be looking to head outdoors to take advantage of the not-too-hot, not-too-cold season. How they approach the outdoors, however, is another question. Risk during play in early childhood services is a balance between keeping children as as safe as necessary rather than possible. Westgarth Kindergarten and Bush Kinder helped us put the spotlight on a bush kinder where fire is just part of the curriculum.

This Amplify article precedes a full-length feature on risky play in CELA’s next issue of the Rattler+Broadside magazine so subscribe to the digital version now or join CELA for your print copy and be sure you don’t miss out!

Playing with fire

By CELA writer Margaret Paton

Early childhood and middle years education is increasingly less about keeping children “as safe as possible” and more about “as safe as necessary”. And, according to Jambour, Brussoni and others, risk-taking in play “helps children test their physical limits, develop their perceptual-motor capacity, and learn to avoid and adjust to dangerous environments and activities”.

Let’s bring in forest school advocate and Canadian academic Nevin Harper, who recently wrote in the International Journal of Child & Youth Services.

In Nevin’s paper, Outdoor Risky Play and Healthy Child Development in the Shadow of the ‘Risk Society’he argues that in outdoor play the:

real risks to child safety and health … are minimal compared with other aspects of modern life

Those minimal risks could range from scratches/bruises from falls, small cuts from tools to possible exposure to fire, he says. Meanwhile, child abduction, sporting injuries, medical errors and motor vehicle accidents are the big risks in modern life for children.

“Reconceptualising risk through a developmental lens could allow teachers and other human service workers to explore and develop higher risk tolerance in their work,” he says.

What the standards say about risk

In Australia’s early childhood education sector, the second quality area of the National Quality looks at minimising risk to children’s health and safety. Meanwhile the Children (Education and Care Services National) Law (NSW) S167 sets down fines of up to $50,000 for not taking “every reasonable precaution”.

How does risky during play fit into this? Harper offers six categories: great heights, high speed, dangerous tools, dangerous elements, rough and tumble and disappearing/getting lost.

Some people think being very, very safe is being very, very good, but not providing risk is not good. You have got to allow risk to be part of your curriculum.

Balancing risks

Those are the kind of issues you can see happening in a playground and underpin Play Australia’s Risk Management Guide, Getting the Balance Right.  The guide focuses on sound, balanced judgement and practice around risk in play focusing on the Australian Playground Standards issued in late 2014. Play Australia’s guide includes a case study on one of Australia’s longest running bush preschools – Westgarth Kindergarten, in Northcote, in Melbourne’s north. Their rigorous risk assessment matrix took two years to develop and is available via their website.

Director Doug Fargher says: “We knew we were blazing a new trail with bush kinder. We wanted to make sure when we did it, did it really well.”

The service has been operating for 20 years, but as a bush kinder only since 2011. They now have two groups of 26 preschool children and a three-year-old group. There are two sessions in the home site and one bush kinder session each week. On their bush day, parents drive children to the location and pick them up there.

Risk as part of the curriculum

“Some people think being very, very safe is being very, very good, but not providing risk is not good. You have got to allow risk to be part of your curriculum,” he says.

That means discussing it with and listening to your community – of educators, parents, and children. Importantly you might not consider something a risk (such as playing outdoors when it’s cold), but a child or others in your service’s community might.

Close-up of a wood fire burning.

Nurturing the spark of an idea

Some might say bringing fire play into an early childhood education setting is going too far. Should you light a fire in front of children in your service, show them how to make one, even allow them to set up a fire and explore it?

Fire is part of Westgarth’s program. Candles are lit to signify story time (since the service’s early days) and, since 2012, they have occasional campfires on bush kinder days.

Fargher talks about introducing fire during bush-kinder sessions in 2012 with “real reverence”.

“We light the fire as the teachers. We might hold a child’s hand, they may assist us, but we’ve made that decision. When we have a fire set up in the bush, children will be allowed to place sticks in the fire. They won’t be holding a stick and waving it in the air. We know that young children have a fascination with fires and can start them.

“It’s introduced very carefully and ultimately we’re very safe. In lots of ways, I’m a cautious teacher and a cautious parent. I don’t want anyone to get hurt.”

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Community Early Learning Australia is a not for profit organisation with a focus on amplifying the value of early learning for every child across Australia - representing our members and uniting our sector as a force for quality education and care.

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