Why kids should play with fire and power tools at preschool

 Photo: Marina Neil

While fire pits and real tools aren't things you'd normally expect to find in an early childhood centre, new Australian research suggests that perhaps they should be.

Exposure to different "risks" within their daycare centre, including open flames hammers and saws, (yes, you read that correctly!) resulted in preschoolers developing more confidence, safety awareness and better risk assessment skills, according to a new study. The findings, set to be published later this year, highlight the importance of risky play in a world where helicopter parenting is increasingly common.

As part of the research, a collaboration between University of Newcastle Conjoint Associate Professor Linda Newman, Dr Nicole Leggett  and Adamstown Community Early Learning and Preschool Service Director Kate Higginbottom, approximately 70 children, aged two - five years old had supervised access to a number of "risks" including a fire pit, power tools (under supervision), high climbing equipment and play outside the centre boundaries.

A cubbyhouse built by children at a preschool involved in the study.
A cubbyhouse built by children at a preschool involved in the study. 

While playing in the street or climbing trees might be discouraged by today's "helicopter parents", Professor Newman explains that such activities can be crucial when it comes to shaping how a child sees the world - and ultimately how they approach risk.

"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," she adds.

Early childhood educators used what they term "intentional teaching" to help kids develop their own risk-assessment skills as they engaged in risky play.

"Intentional teaching involves giving physical and verbal support to kids, but also engaging children in co-problem solving and higher-level involvement in making decisions themselves," says Ms Higginbottom. More specifically, rather than telling kids what to do in risky situations, it's about helping them make their own safety judgments and developing competence when approaching risk.

"If you're talking to a child high up in a tree, rather than suggesting 'put your foot there,' you'd say, 'I can see you're up high, what are some options?'" Ms Higginbottom says of intentional teaching. "Rather than giving direction, it's a shared-thinking approach."

And it worked.


Researchers found that children were using more language associated with risk assessment and risk management, when reflecting on their risky play. Ms Higginbottom elaborates: "When asked, 'How did you know it was safe to climb on high equipment?' one child participant responded, 'I know it's safe because the teacher was with me.'"

There was an upside to implementing risky play for early childhood educators at the centre too: childcare workers expressed more confidence managing risky play within the centre."The biggest highlight as a team was identifying that children engaged with risk more often and more autonomously, with less support required as educators," Ms Higginbottom says, taking the pressure off already stretched staff.

Intentional teaching also has other benefits. "It helps kids to develop language as well as their brain-body connections," Professor Newman adds.

For the research team, the findings are clear: there's a place for risk in the playground.

"Risk can often be misinterpreted by our profession,"Ms Higginbottom says of early childhood education,  "because the regulations state we need to take every reasonable precaution to keep kids safe." And yet, she continues, what the national Early Years Learning Framework doesn't require, is for educators to eliminate risk completely.

"We need to support children to take risks appropriate to their level," Ms Higginbottom says.

The research, which also focused on empowering early-childhood researchers, will be presented at the European Early Childhood Research Association conference in Bologna, Italy, next month.