The University of Newcastle, Australia

Open flames and real tools deter our toddlers from risky business

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Exposing toddlers to ‘risky play’ such as access to open flames and genuine tools during their early learning actually increases their safety awareness and promotes risk aversion, new research from the University of Newcastle (UON) has found.

Nicole Leggett and Linda Newman

Working with children aged between two and five, ‘risks’ such as a fire pit, real tools and high climbing apparatus were implemented at an early education centre and were ultimately found to improve children’s confidence and promote a better assessment of risky behaviour.

The research, one part of a collaborative practitioner study led by UON’s Conjoint Associate Professor Linda Newman and Dr Nicole Leggett alongside Adamstown Community Early Learning and Preschool Service Director Kate Higginbottom, validates the importance of risky play for children’s learning experience, as well as building educators’ confidence.

“These days there’s a tendency for parents and guardians to shelter children from risks that past generations were readily exposed to – we hear a lot about ‘helicopter parenting’ or parents wrapping their kids up in cotton wool .

“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.

“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 researchers observed that, after an emphasis on intentional teaching was introduced, the children used more language associated with risk assessment and risk management when reflecting on their risky play and required less verbal and physical support from educators, indicating an increased ability to judge risk.

Notably, an increase in girls' participation challenged gender stereotypes, leading to a more balanced curriculum of risky play.The educators' confidence also improved, which in turn provided a significant increase in risky play opportunities.

The results varied from past research in Europe, which found children took more risks when no educators were present.

Associate Professor Newman and Dr Leggett undertook the collaborative research, a year-long study comprising four industry-led projects, to develop professional learning communities and better support teacher-led research in early childhood education.

“We know that early childhood educators sometimes experience low morale due to staff shortages and low pay. Despite the same qualifications, they can receive up to $30,000 per annum less  than their teacher counterparts in schools.

“There’s a critical need for better frameworks and networks to ensure early career educators are supported and are able to thrive in the workplace,” Associate Professor Newman said.

The Research Connections project was inspired by Elder Street Early Childhood Centre and conducted in collaboration with Adamstown Community Early Learning and Preschool, Hamilton Childcare Centre, and Cameron Park Early Learning Centre.

The four projects included exploring the value of professional support and connection, strengthening the transition to school, enhancing teaching and learning practice and risk taking.

Associate Professor Newman, Dr Leggett, Ms Mel Duffy Fagan (Elder St) and Ms Kate Higginbottom (Adamstown) have been invited to present their findings at the European Early Childhood Research Association conference in Bologna, Italy next month.

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