Let kids play with fire and power tools, researchers say

THE idea of letting a two-year-old sit next to an open fire, or a five-year-old use power tools to build a play house is the stuff of nightmares for some parents. Probably most parents.

But researchers at the University of Newcastle (UON) says that this kind of "risky play" actually increases kids' safety awareness and nurtures their aversion to risk.

In other words, it's more effective to let a child fall off a high structure and hurt herself than just telling her falling will hurt. Well, kind of.

"These days there's a tendency for parents and guardians to shelter children from risks that past generations were readily exposed to," said Associate Professor Linda Newman.

"Things like playing out in the street or climbing trees are often avoided, but these activities can be vital in shaping a child's perception of the world and how they approach risk, ultimately building resilience in adulthood," she said.

Active children playing on climbing net at school yard playground. Kids play and climb outdoors on sunny summer day. Cute girl and boy on nest swing at preschool sport center. Family summer vacation.

Sixty children, aged six months to five years, were part of the nine-month study that is a collaboration between the Adamstown childcare centre and UON. Instead of miniature kitchens and plastic dinosaurs, the children's play things were fire, knives and powertools.

The childcare centre's philosophy encourages risky play, but always under appropriate supervision and with the correct teachings in place.

Kids were allowed to play near fire at a safe distance, with their shoes on. Children were introduced to tools, starting with hammers and screwdrivers and then moving on to hacksaws and power tools, all under supervision.
At the end of the program, the older children built a cubbyhouse themselves.

"By implementing risky play in a secure environment as part of early learning, we can ensure young children feel confident to engage with risk safely under supervision rather than on their own," Associate Professor Newman said.

The study had interesting outcomes for girls. Girls and boys were encouraged equally to engage in the same risky play, doing things like climbing and building. The risky play challenged gender stereotypes, which resulted in a more balanced curriculum for boys and girls.

The children at Adamstown have thrived. Centre Director Kate Higginbottom told Fairfax that the centre's philosophy was based on six principles researched by Norwegian Ellen Beate Hansen Sandseter. They encourage children to:

1. Play at great height

2. Play at high speeds

3. Play with dangerous tools

4. Play near dangerous elements like fire and water

5. Engage in rough and tumble play

6. Experience getting lost and not being watched by adults.

This article originally appeared on Kidspot and has been republished here with permission.