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How daycare centres are exposing children to risky play

This is a fantastic article that outlines the incredible benefits of a carefully designed play space.

Check it out here or read it below


Watching four-year-old Hudson play on an edge nearly two metres off the ground can make the heart race.

He is missing his two front teeth after a bike accident and is getting over an elbow fracture after a fall in a neighbourhood park.

Instead of offering a hand, or calling out "be careful", his educators at his childcare centre are standing back to watch what happens next.

Woodlands Early Education Centre, in Logan south of Brisbane, as well as nine others in the chain have recently overhauled their yards to increase children's exposure to risk.

It involves letting children experiment and push themselves without knowing the exact outcome and without adult intervention.

While the new grounds may look dangerous — a towering fort (with open edges), 1.6-metre-high balance beams, and climbing walls (without a fall mattress) — the data shows the opposite.

There has actually been a 43 per cent reduction in reported injuries at the centre.

"I was very nervous when the new playground first opened," co-director at the centre Cat Marios said.

The educational team had multiple training sessions with the playground's designer before it opened in May last year.

Co-centre director Lily Barker said the team had to learn a new set of skills, to pause and hang back while the children navigated their new grounds.

"I think we are auto-tuned in this profession, not to stop children from taking risks, but to stop them from getting hurt," she said.

"Very quickly we saw that the children were so much more capable than what we thought.

"I think we've shifted completely as a team to risk, navigating risk, and letting children take risk, and not underestimating their ability to do that."

Hudson now moves through the playground with a confidence that his mum, Alli Kemp, has long sought since his elbow fracture last year.

Despite multiple trips to different parks after his accident, Hudson would refuse to go down a slide without holding her hand.

Ms Kemp said setting his own challenges at the childcare centre was the key to regaining trust in his own abilities.

"When he fails, he keeps on trying and trying and perseveres, and when he is good at something, he gets really excited about it," she said.

"It is important to stand back. If you're going to stand over them, they're not going to learn and build any confidence, you're always trying to catch them and stop them hurting themselves."

Lukas Ritson, an outdoor educator and play expert who has held Ted Talks on the concept of play, redeveloped the grounds.

Mr Ritson, who is also on the board of the Australian Institute of Play, said a risky play environment needs height, tools, seclusion, high speed and places where you can fall.

The diversity creates free-play zones, where children are in charge to take their own risks and set their own goals, whether it is physical, emotional or social.

Mr Ritson said they can gravitate towards their needs for that day: Do they need to socialise and ride with a friend? Do they need alone time in a cubby covered in vines? Do they want to play in the creek bed and dam it with rocks?

He said it was important for educators to explain hazards and intervene before a child gets hurt, but it was about pausing before intervening.

"Children have amazing built-in safety mechanisms," he said.

"Their brain won't give them the cue to engage in something, if they're not physically competent.

"When they achieve it, they get this big hit of dopamine, the subconscious brain says, I'll do that again.

"What you're doing is creating a barometer of what is acceptable levels of risk versus the effort and challenge you have to put in.

"And you're also discovering where I cut this off because it turns into a hazard and it's too risky."

Key points:

  • Ten childcare centres redevelop their playgrounds to introduce risky play

  • Data shows a 43pc decrease in injury reports at one centre

  • Play experts say children can get a dopamine hit from risky play, learn self-fulfilment and how to gauge risk into adulthood

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