Again with the risky play! ( a parents story)

barrel skate park


The other day I was booked to run a junk and nature session by a council down south by the sea. The liaison said the council wanted something engaging while being able to wash their hands of any risks associated with risky play (by risky play, I mean ‘fun’ play).  The aversion to risk got us chatting. The Liaison (lets call her Ms T) said she let her own kids engage in risky play. When they were very little, they could play at the skate park testing their skills on the concrete ramps, and steel rails, however, the glares and whispered comments regarding the ‘neglectful’ mum sometimes got too much, and  Ms T would hand the duties over to her husband. Ms T observed, the husband never got that response from the community (maybe he didn’t notice it because he was a man 😊 )

Do community values regarding risky play influence the parents who want their children to have the best learning experiences? I know Ms T still lets her kids take risk, it’s just, sometimes she is a little more covert about it. While we were having this chat, a bunch of older kids (free of adult supervision) grabbed one of my blue barrels, and after a little bit of unmanned testing, finally took the plunge and rode the skate ramp Niagara falls style. It seems kids don’t care too much what the general community feels about risky play.


Risky play. Walking the walk


A while back I went to a site and turned a cut down tree into some play equipment. The highest part of the structure was a lofty 750 mm above the dirt. Normally if a structure is more than 600 mm high it needed soft fall,  however the vertical drop from the highest point meant they would land on the log underneath and that was only 450 mm away. Technically it didn’t need soft fall.  The ground underneath was a sandy loam with heaps of leaf litter. Not soft fall as current regulations dictate, but not asphalt either. We understood the potential risk and went with it. The champion of risky play, Lady Allen of Hurtwood said “better a broken arm than a broken spirit”. Well a child’s spirit didn’t get broken, their arm did. I am an advocate for risky play as it develops children’s self risk assessment ability, gives them agency, and build resilience, however I don’t really want to see all the children break their arms in order to have a strong spirit so I went back to the site to drag the structure over to the soft fall area. When I got there I asked how it happened. Turns out a child was sitting on the bottom log (300 mm high) and fell backwards and broke their arm in two places.

Typical, I thought. We create risky play environments, and they go and break their arms on the non risky play aspect. I was at a site months ago and saw some cool log stepping stones that went real high and was informed that a child broke their arm falling from one. I thought, fair enough. They do go pretty high, but was told it was from the first step that was 100 mm high. I don’t think we are going to go down the path of adding soft fall to any structure 100 mm off the ground. The point is, yes, risky play environments do lead to more chances of injury, however children seem to find a way to get injured even in a bubble wrapped environment. I was at an Adam Bienenstock  seminar and he said that’s why kids bone heal so well. Because they are designed to break. Kids are designed to fall over and get up again.

Well the logs from the site I worked at are now over proper soft fall, and the kids can legally do swan dives from the top if they want. Unlike most soft fall I see, this stuff is two feet deep, and like quicksand. Hey Kids. I dare to try and break any bones now. I DARE YOU!

Throwing nature

mud on tree

I was talking to my brother a while back, and we were reflecting on what we enjoyed about playing out in the scrub. He said “throwing stuff”. We threw rocks down cliffs, stones at bee hives, brothers into creeks, and mud, stones, paddy-melons and sheep sh*t (i mean poo) at each other. Throwing nature was a big part of our nature adventures.  Chris Athey (who ran the Froebel Early Education Project for 5 years) talks about physical schemas. Trajectory is one of them. I think our shared love of throwing nature identified a trajectory schema will both have today. This photo of a mud splattered tree attest to this. I splatted a hand print on the tree and asked if anyone could get higher than that. Suddenly. SPLAT! a huge glob of sticky mud appeared a foot above it. Hand prints were forgotten as the kids and I worked our mud balls higher and higher up the tree.

The good thing about physical schemas like trajectory is they lead to deeper cognitive understandings. Kids had to measure muscle output and aim to get the balls higher. If the mud was too dry it wouldn’t stick on the tree, however, if it was too wet it would stick to your hand and not land where you want it to. They discussed so many scientific variables. Some learnt the perfect consistency through experimentation (Piagetian idea), while others worked it out vicariously through others ( Bandura’s Social cognitive theory). All these learning goodies just from throwing nature. And to think. Some children are discouraged from throwing nature.

Larry the lumpy stick

larry the stick

Larry the lumpy stick

If anyone has invited me to their site they may have met Larry. Larry is a wattle branch that I sourced from a Forestry SA pine forest 5 years ago. Wattles grow along the edge of the pines forest and they normally get chopped down when they maintain the plantations. Larry’s path changed from, composting on the forest floor (a noble profession) to becoming an icon of nature education to thousands of children. As Larry gets older, he is getting a few cracks in him (like me), and one day he will go beyond his usefulness and retire to my bonfire. Actually, I love Larry. I will mount his battered remains on my office wall, with a fitting epitaph. Before Larry came to be, my collection of 250 sticks were just sticks.  Now and then the older children got a bit rambunctious with the sticks and a few got broken. I decided to personify my sticks. I started with Larry. He was a unique branch, with a deep red colour, smooth, and lumpy. Look after Larry, I would remind the kids. As the sessions unfolded, the children wanted to know where Larry was. They wanted to know the other sticks names. I would hear kids in the yard shouting “look after Larry!” I noticed stick breakage dropping after this idea was implemented. It is like the children had developed empathy for the plight of Larry and his brethren. A lot of research supports the personification of nature, and anthropomorphisation of the animals, as a way of helping young children connect, develop empathy and build relationships with nature. As a young child I felt the scrub behind my house was like a giant creature that was my friend. When it got hurt, it hurt me.  Maybe mother nature is a real Mother, and we are the children getting looked after. Sometimes kids have to look after their mothers. Oh no, I’m sounding like a hippy. Better sign off and drink some herbal tea.

Defending the fort!

storming the fort


Imagine this scene. War cries echoing throughout the grounds, battle drums thundering their intoxicating rhythms, driving warrior clans, decorated in muddied war paint, to boldly declare their conquering intention to clans whose mud spatted faces identify them as the enemy. Weapons held high, threatening, posturing, reeking of bravado.  Defend the fort! The generals observe from the hill, iPad’s in hand documenting all of the learning, linking to the Australian curriculum, school philosophy, and valued learning dispositions.  This was my experience at a city based primary school.

In the last month, I have visited many schools. Loose parts are on the rise. Sometimes teacher driven, but mainly student driven.  Students scour the school grounds for materials they can use to create forts, cubbies and other special places. With these meagre resources, they create places they can call their own. Ownership of environment is important, and at school many students feel they are at somebody else’s place. They feel, every time they carve a little niche the ‘man’ takes it away.  Often the cubbies and their resources are taken away.  The most common reason is, the students end up fighting over the finite resources, and people get hurt. This is true. I have seen it with my own eyes at many sites. The cubby building is motoring along, until they consume all the resources. First, they playfully ‘steal’ from other forts. This escalates, until conflicts break out. “Teacher! They are stealing our sticks!” is a popular catchphrase.

What happens next is interesting. At a recent conference, I heard South Australian teacher’s main pedagogies were building relationships (good) and rescuing (not so good). Some schools rescue the students from these problems (and the problem-solving skills needed to overcome them) by banning cubby building. I was at Keith area school and I noticed their students created a fort village, and had exhausted the resources. Somebody did steal some sticks (hey, they are kids after all), however the verbal exchange that followed was logical and respectful. It went something along the lines of “but I need the sticks!” “I know you do, but stealing is the wrong way of getting something”. They went on to negotiate a way forward that was win-win.

I asked their teacher why this was. She said they have had loose parts in their yard for quite a while, and they have already addressed this element in their school curriculum.   Their school has some huge banners out front saying Respect, Courage, Cooperate, and Achieve. It seems having loose parts in the yard affords teachable moments to help students gather positive experiences developing these dispositions. This was echoed by the iPad laden Generals who noted, without these learning experiences how are children going to master the executive function skills needed to move through our complex challenging world. DEFEND THE FORT!

When nature falls from the sky.

kids in the rain

When nature falls from the sky.

Some sites say they don’t have a lot of nature. Some say they are saving, through fundraisers and grants to get nature. And some run away and hide from nature. At a recent seminar at Upper Sturt Primary school (You remember, the bush school), they said nature is everywhere. Clouds are nature, wind is nature, dirt is nature, and earwigs are nature. Even rain is nature. When so many places are spending up big to bring nature into their sites, I always think it’s strange that when nature comes a calling, they run away. I was at a preschool in Mitcham, and it was 12 degrees and windy, and the BOM radar said big rain was heading our way. We spent the next half an hour with one eye pointed to the skies trying to identify the clouds that would bring this ‘nature from above’. We noted wind direction, and speed, we classified clouds based on their shade, and ‘seriousness’, and tried to identify which one was heavy enough to drop its rain. So much science learning, and the rain hadn’t even come yet.

When it did come, it came hard. It was icy, and the yard turned into the Aratiatia rapids. The children morphed into manic elves, jumping and hollering. Many standing face up drinking the rain, while others flapped their wings soaring high amongst the clouds. The teachers observed a couple of girls, who didn’t want to get messy, standing under a waterfall, letting it flow all over their faces, while another group took off their raincoats, and let the water soak them to their bones. One of my observations was, the children were behaving just like the birds in the trees. When big rain comes, things get really exciting. Imaging that. Exciting nature play, with maximum engagement, and it was all free.


Junk, litters, and STEM.

stem vehicle I was at the Keyneton Primary school the other day. This was the final of three days based on STEM. The students had familiarised themselves with the resources and this final day was a STEM challenge. They had to make a vehicle that could carry a person 10 metres using only the junk and nature I brought. One group was very sophisticated. They had many ideas, and ended up creating something that moved like the tracks of a tank. The team I was watching was thinking about how the Egyptians moved the pyramid rocks. They couldn’t think of any way to pull it off and were getting frustrated. Suddenly one student shouted, we should just make one of those things they use in China (a litter). She explained to the others it was the human powered carts used in Kung Fu Panda. One pallet and two sticks latter, and they had met their challenge and proudly marched across the school yard to demonstrate their accomplishment. I asked her, how did she suddenly come up with this, just as they were giving up. She said she looked at her friend (who was Chinese) and the idea hit her like a bolt of lightning.  Part of learning science is learning about thinking scientifically. Historically, many scientist ideas came to them like a bolt of lightning from some strange dream, or an irrelevant trigger. They went on to test their litter with various carrying capacities, and shapes and were excitedly engaged till the end of the session.

When mud kitchens explode

mushroom cloud muddy

The day started off pretty normal.  I was running a mobile junk and nature playground at a school, and every grade was spending a lesson in it. Over by the pop up mud kitchen, kids were commenting on the feel of the mud, the smell, the sounds. Some wondered if it was mud or dog poo. They rubbed it on their hands, added it to pots, pans, and old tins, and rolled it into balls. By lunch time we had gone though 40 litres of mud. Then it was the grade 7’s turn.

First they couldn’t believe they were allowed to play with it. Then they couldn’t believe their friends wanted to play in it. It was revolting, slimey, and some said it stank (it smelt like wet soil). And then just like that…It exploded.

It was horrible! Mud everywhere. Grade 7’s covered head to toe in sticky gooey mud. It was hanging in clumps from their hair, dripping from their faces. Their clothes became a uniformed brown. Tears washed mud from beneath their eyes. Tears of laughter. The teachers watching, couldn’t believe the scene. Their grade 7’s, the kings and queens of the primary school, running around screaming in delight throwing mud at each other, looking like 6 year olds. Gone were the mobile phones, sneaky eye make-up and pretend teen-age talk, replaced with extreme nature play. The mud fighting hung around the mud kitchen, and all those who entered knew what they were getting in for. The battle levelled traditional power structures, as the girls displayed a keen eye for precision and strategy, while the innocuous book worm attacked with stealth. This play went on for 30 minutes. It never escalated into anything else, but fun. It was reciprocal, measured, and challenging for all who participated. Not a bad activity for a grade 7 lesson. Engage in an extreme, challenging battle, needing self-control, resilience, and social connection (not a bad collection of learning dispositions)

The grade 7 teachers were pretty excited watching their ‘grown up’ students. “This is an age where there is so much pressure to grow up, yet something as simple as mud gave them an opportunity to still be kids” said one teacher.

Cant wait to see what this school does for international mud day June the 29th!

A log gorilla and the DECD’s literacy indicators.

I was at the Southern Flinders. A couple of days earlier it was 38 degrees and a hot dusty North Westerly was blowing. This day was a reprieve. Only 32 degrees. With a gentle hot northerly blowing. That’s alright though, because I was actually in a lush jungle feeding a baby gorilla some mashed banana. A new friend handed me the crying infant to nurse, while she prepared the mash. Shhh, she whispered to the baby, “its coming.” “She hates waiting for her food” she tells me.
I might have to step back a little. We were crouched under half a ton of sticks piled high on some climbing frames, nursing a baby gorilla sized log, feeding it a mash made from pulverised ochre. I accidently started the gorilla thing by saying I wonder if the roof could hold my weight, as I weigh as much as a gorilla. Ten minutes later a group constructed a gorilla nest, they become gorilla mums, the logs became hungry babies and the rocks were crushed to become baby food.
I love a good theorist. What would have Vygotsky said about this. In one of my favourite bedtime reads, Mind in society (Vygotsky 1978) Vygotsky reasons, when an object becomes a symbol for something else (such as the log becoming a baby gorilla), then higher order thinking is needed. And Vygotsky also sees a continuum from linking a log to a gorilla, to, linking a scribble on a piece of paper to a sound or word. They are both symbolic representations of something. A plethora of research supports this.
Schrader (1990) notes many ‘studies have suggested that children use similar representational mental processes in both symbolic play and literate behaviour’. Pellegrini and Galda (1993, p.167) argued, ‘the symbolic transformation component of symbolic play seems important for the early writing of preschool children’.
Another way research has found symbolic play supports early literacy is the fact it encourages metalanguage. My new Gorilla friend was talking to me as a mum gorilla. She was telling me about the woes of Gorilla motherhood, and then without blinking, she became a four-year-old girl, and she asked me where I got the rocks from. This ability shows her understanding of language. Talk like this, and you are a gorilla mum, talk like that and you are yourself. Pellegrini and Galda’s research highlights the affordance symbolic play has, when it comes to talking about language.
The DECD literacy indicators have something to say about all of this. One of the four indicators are “I represent my world symbolically”. Understanding conventions of text, being a key element. For my Four year old gorilla mum, using language to flick from Gorilla mum to four year old, and flipping from genre’s, Narrative, to a discussion, show, she is on her way to master the complex world of literacy.
And the last word goes to Singer (1961) who says “abstract symbols provide distance from ‘‘the bondage of direct sense perception’’

DECD 2015, Implementation guidelines for indicators of preschool numeracy and literacy in government preschools, South Australian Government, South Australia.
Pellegrini, AD & Galda, L 1993, ‘Ten years after: A reexamination of symbolic play and literacy research’, Reading Research Quarterly, pp. 163-175.
Schrader, CT 1990, ‘Symbolic play as a curricular tool for early literacy development’, Early Childhood Research Quarterly, vol. 5, no. 1, pp. 79-103.
Vygotsky, L 1978, Mind in society: the development of higher pschological processes, Harvard University Press, London.

Smashing things for fun (or. To smash or not to smash. That is the question)


One thing I have seen a lot of, is smashing things for fun. I know there are some smashers who do it because they are angry and have no well-being, but I’m talking about the ones that smash for fun. The way this affects educators can vary. Some think “you little bugger. You’re going down for that”, while others look at it and wonder what is happening in the smashers mind. How can smashing further learning? Is there legal smashing? I have a confession…. I’m a smasher. When I was a kid, my siblings and I ended up smashing every window in the derelict farm cars. In the farm junk pile, we smashed every old window we found. We even smashed up asbestos sheets (it was the 70’s after all). We didn’t smash peoples house windows. That would be wrong. We didn’t smash because we were bad, or angry, we smashed because it was interesting, full of wonder and fun. The sound, the imagery. The way a flat piece of glass would instantly change into a thousand sharp little squares, or a hundred razor sharp knives. I have camaraderie with the exploratory, fun-seeking smashers out there.  With my Mobile Junk and Nature Playground I have, what I refer to as, legal smashing. Pounding rocks into dust using railway nails, and hitting drums with sticks as hard as you can.  You can even smash yourself around in a plastic 44-gallon drum as you roll down a hill.

Do learning environments cater for the smasher? While I don’t think kindergartens should have a beer bottle smashing wall, a mud throwing wall would satisfy many smashers urges (Hmmmm, dry mud balls smashing on a wall…sweeeeet).  Some may feel that kids won’t be able to tell the difference between legal smashing and ‘illegal’ smashing. Alfie Kohn talks about the teacher’s image of a child as being the starting point on how they teach. If you think smashers are nothing but a bunch of little buggers, then maybe you have a deficit view on children’s behaviours, and you may feel you need to teach ‘smashing’ out of them.  If you think children are competent learners, then maybe you will see smashing as a child’s interest and program learning from it.