By CELA on 6 Nov, 2020

Risky play  is always a hot topic in Facebook groups, forums and PD sessions. While many of these discussions focus around sharp tools, climbing to great heights and engaging with heavy loose parts, the common garden stick rarely rates a mention.

The dangers of running with sticks and eyes being poked out are never far from the minds of adults in busy playgrounds and parks. After reading a news article about stick play being banned from a primary school playground recently, it seemed like a topic that needed exploration.

We asked author and award-winning teacher Renee Irving Lee to investigate how stick play can be done safely.

By Renee Irving-Lee

The outdoors is an open, and constantly changing environment. It is a place where children can experience freedom, engage in gross motor movements, be boisterous and play with natural materials such as sticks, rocks, leaves and dirt.

The benefits of playing in the natural environment have long been documented, so why do adults have such apprehension and sometimes immense aversion to children playing with sticks in these places?

Can children get hurt from playing with sticks? Yes, of course!

Children can also get hurt from scissors, and the other numerous amount of pointy objects found around homes and classrooms, if they are not used in the way they were intended to be used.

Children have access to scissors in early childhood centres from a young age, and educators have successfully scaffolded their learning for decades to ensure they know how to safely hold them, store them, walk with them and cut with them.

So, why can’t we do the same for sticks?

I believe that as adults, we can have difficulty with this concept because unlike scissors, sticks are irregular objects that have multiple uses and are found in changing environments.

For children, sticks provide an open-ended source of play and can be used as tools, wands, swords, broomsticks, paintbrushes, craft objects and musical instruments. Scissors, on the other hand, are intended to be used for one purpose only, so it has been easier for us to support, facilitate and guide their use within the closed environment of the classroom.

How can we teach children to play respectfully and safely without taking away their right to play in the environment?

The answer is simple, really – the same way that we have taught them how to use scissors.

Select a good stick

Just like scissors, sticks come in a variety of sizes; so it is important that children select sticks that are suitable for their hands and for what they want to use them for.  Some questions regarding stick selection could include:

  • Is the stick the right size for my hands and body?
  • Is the stick smooth or will it give me splinters?
  • Does the stick have any sharp or pointy edges?
  • Will this stick break easily?
  • How do I want to use this stick?

Make a risk assessment

Just like using scissors, playing with sticks comes with associated risks. Children will need support in understanding and managing these risks. Many forest schools tend to follow these guidelines:

  • The biggest stick you choose to play with should be no bigger than the length of your arm. This is because young children haven’t fully developed their peripheral vision, so they don’t have the awareness of how far their stick will reach if they swing it behind them.
  • Be aware of your bubble.  Children will need help understanding that there is a bubble created around them that extends to the end of the stick they are holding. When they stretch out their arm, the end of the stick is where their imaginary bubble starts. Children should choose to play in a space where their friends can stand safely outside their bubble.
  • Walk with sticks pointing down and thumb over the pointy end of the stick.

Use positive language

Anxious words make children feel anxious. When sticks are involved, they often hear from adults, “Put that down. No weapons. No fighting. Be careful.”

Positive words make children feel empowered. We can change our language around stick play to ensure they are confident, responsible, and safe citizens of the playground. Just as we did with scissors, we can tell them what they CAN do instead of what they CAN’T do.

Encourage Independent stick play

Once a child can hold and manipulate scissors, we encourage them to cut independently. We can do this with stick play too. Once they know how to select a good stick, and can understand and manage the risks – they then have the skills to play with sticks independently. I have always found children to be more responsible when they have been empowered to manage their play on their own.

Encourage skill development

Just as a child develops their cutting skills from straight lines to more complex shapes, there are also unlimited opportunities for extension on stick play. Children can build bigger forts with more rooms, create more intricate pieces of artwork, invent different sounding musical instruments, utilise other natural materials or teach family and younger siblings about playing with sticks safely.

By supporting children to play with sticks safely, we are ultimately giving them extra opportunities to be responsible, independent, creative, critical, and perceptive –which are all important attributes of our future global citizens.

Further reading

Risky play is not a category, it’s what children do – Marc Armitage

The importance of risky play – Anne Rodgers

Car park transformed into Anji Play inspired play space – CELA

Rethinking risk – Dr Mariana Brussoni

About Renee Irving Lee

Renee Irving Lee is passionate about writing children’s books that promote life-long learning, social inclusion and improve self-esteem. She has always loved working with children, so writing for children has been a natural progression from her work as a teacher and educational freelance writer.

Her diverse background in education extends to teaching primary school-aged children, young adults, and children with special needs. Renee was awarded the Young Achiever of the Year Award by TAFE Queensland for her work as a dynamic, student-focused teacher who is highly respected for her skills, intellect and dedication. Renee was also inducted into the International Golden Key Honour Society while studying for her Bachelor of Education (Special Education) where she graduated with a Distinction.

Find out more about Renee’s latest book Rosie Leads the Way and how we can help young children to build self-confidence and value what’s really important in our recent Amplify article​.

Professional development relating to this topic


About CELA

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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