Risky business is child’s play in a safe place

Play of the past is making a comeback, with children at a Newcastle long daycare service being taught the importance of taking a risk. Natassia Soper reports.

Preschool students using hammers watched on by a staff member. Preschool students using hammers watched on by a staff member.
Image: Early childhood educator Alex Sutherland with students at Hamilton Childcare Centre.

From parkour to playing with real tools and even fire, early childhood educator Alex Sutherland uses adventurous ways to educate kids at his Newcastle daycare centre.

In fact, the 32-year-old and his colleagues encourage risky play at Hamilton Childcare Centre as they believe that learning how to take risks is an invaluable part of early learning. 

The Newcastle service provides six outdoor spaces for children to take risks, through heights, speed, impact, rough and tumble play, real tools, and dangerous elements such as fire and water, all in a safe environment.  

Mr Sutherland said he bases his teaching off the ‘loose parts play theory’ where children are provided with materials and an environment that promotes creative imagination.  

“In play a lot of the learning that happens is incidental. It’s spur of the moment stuff,” he said.

“Most modern playgrounds are designed to be safe as necessary, so Hamilton Childcare has reintroduced the element of play missing in the modern world.”

Mr Sutherland will travel to Sweden and Wales this month as a recipient of the 2023 NSW Premier’s Teacher Early Childhood Education and Care Scholarship to conduct research on the ‘Original Learning Approach’ developed by Swedish education consultant Suzanne Axelsson.

The approach weaves together playing, learning, and teaching and is driven by 10 principles such as wonder, curiosity and risk.  

He aims to explore how these principles can be used by Aussie educators to engage children in bigger concepts such as sustainability and justice and will present his findings to services across the state on his return. 

Students on a balance beam. Students on a balance beam.
Image: Students at the childcare centre enjoying some of the outdoor activities.

Benefits of adventurous play

According to the Australian Children’s Education & Care Quality Authority, no play space is risk free. No matter how much we try to remove risk of children getting hurt it will be there.  (Find more information here).  

The independent statutory authority also encourages adventurous play outdoors at services, as it lets children build the skills and abilities to identify and mitigate risk when they come across it so they can engage in the big, wide world.  

Director of Hamilton Childcare Centre Kylie Kirrage said kids intuitively understand how to assess risk in their play.

“They understand how they might be able to climb something, and they understand how fast they can move around things called adventurous play,” Ms Kirrage said.

“We just sometimes say things like, ‘Do you feel safe or what can you do next?’ They become confident and very capable.”

“There are always parameters in place, and you’re not allowed to climb if you can’t get back down.”

A student holding a slug. A student holding a slug.
Image: A student with a creepy crawly he found in the playground.

Last chance to apply

Early childhood educators can apply for The NSW Premier's Teacher Scholarships which provides $10,000 or $15,000 for a five-week study tour within Australia or abroad.  

The program is open to permanent and temporary teachers in NSW government and non-government schools, on TAFE NSW campuses and across early childhood centres.   

The Premier's Early Childhood Education Scholarship is open to degree-qualified early childhood teachers who are teaching in early childhood education and care services in NSW. The scholarship is for study in any aspect of early childhood education.  

 Applications for the annual scholarships program close on 17 May 2024.

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