Everyday life is full of risks and challenges, and at Little Scholars, we believe children need opportunities to develop the skills associated with managing risk and making informed judgements about risks from a very young age. Risky play helps to develop important life skill learnings such as; building resilience and persistence, critical-thinking skills, self-confidence and even extends their frustration tolerance.

 

We get it—no one wants to see little ones get hurt. It’s almost instinctual to hover nearby in case they stumble or to call out ‘be careful!’ when they’re taking risks. But could this actually be sending the message that we don’t trust their capabilities or instincts? Historical trends show that since the 1960s, there’s been a shift in how we view children. Once considered competent, responsible, and resilient, the modern perspective leans more towards constant supervision and protection. What used to be unrestricted and often unsupervised outdoor play has transitioned to structured, closely watched, and frequently indoor activities.

A lot of research has been devoted around the world to risky or adventurous play, and how parental attitudes as well as other factors played a part in children’s activities.

Risk and parents' attitudes

Recent research from Deakin University examined the connection between parent attitudes towards risk and injury and children’s adventurous play and physical activity. The study aims to explore the potential advantages of adventurous play in promoting moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (MVPA) in children. It found while parents want their children to have opportunities to develop the above mentions skills associated with managing risky play, upwards of 78 per cent of the 645 Australian parents who participated in the study had a low tolerance of risk when presented with a series of play scenarios. More mothers than fathers who participated were more uneasy of the risky possibilities in the play scenarios, though it’s worth highlighting about 80 per cent of the online survey participants were female.
But, the researchers found children of parents with more positive attitudes to risk and injury had more adventurous play.
 
Adventurous play has the potential to promote moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (MVPA) in children. Engaging in adventurous play, such as climbing high structures, riding bikes or scooters fast, or play-fighting, requires children to exert physical effort and energy. These types of activities often involve higher levels of intensity and movement, which can contribute to increased MVPA.

By participating in adventurous play, children are more likely to engage in activities that elevate their heart rate and breathing, leading to increased energy expenditure. This can help children meet the recommended guidelines for MVPA, which is at least 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity daily.

‘Educators facilitate gradual exposure to controlled risks, allowing children to develop confidence and judgment, ultimately empowering them to make informed decisions when navigating different situations.’

-Kristen Guymer

Adventurous play also offers opportunities for children to develop and enhance their motor skills, coordination, balance, and strength. These physical skills are essential for overall physical development and can contribute to improved physical fitness.

Furthermore, adventurous play provides children with opportunities to explore their environment, take risks, and challenge themselves. This type of play promotes creativity, problem-solving, and decision-making skills, as children navigate and overcome obstacles. It also fosters a sense of adventure, independence, and self-confidence.

Overall, adventurous play can be a fun and engaging way for children to meet their daily MVPA requirements while promoting physical fitness, skill development, and personal growth.

One Canadian study looked at the benefits presented by encouraging risky play in early learning settings. Researchers measured changes in play, social behaviour, psychological wellbeing, and physical activity in 45 children aged two to five years. Their findings showed significant decreases in depressive states, antisocial behaviour and moderate to vigorous (unsafe) physical activity, and increases in play with natural materials, independent play, and prosocial behaviours. Early Childhood Educators observed improved socialisation, problem-solving, focus, self-regulation, creativity and self-confidence, and reduced stress, boredom and injury.
 
Research shows that engaging in risky play can actually reduce the risk of injury, too. Something parents and educators can do is teach young children to risk-assess.

Risky play and adventure awaits at Little Scholars

At Little Scholars, we recognise the importance of letting children take risks and gaining confidence in their own bodies and abilities. Educators employ various methods to teach children how to assess risks, regardless of it being a familiar or unfamiliar setting, according to Kristen Guymer, a lead educator in the early learners studio at our Pacific Pines campus.

“We emphasise the importance of careful observation, encouraging children to identify potential hazards by looking, listening, and even touching when safe,” she says. “Educators also foster critical thinking by asking questions that prompt risk assessment, such as, ‘What could go wrong if…?’ We promote collaboration and communication, allowing children to discuss and share their perceptions of risk.”

Furthermore, Kristen shares, educators facilitate gradual exposure to controlled risks, allowing children to develop confidence and judgment, ultimately empowering them to make informed decisions when navigating different situations.

Before embarking on Bush Kinder experiences or similar activities, educators guide children through risk assessments:

  • Safety briefings – educators provide clear safety guidelines and explain the potential risks associated with an activity. This emphasises the importance of following instructions and identifying safe boundaries
  • Skill development – educators gradually introduce and build essential skills, such as climbing, or using tools, ensuring children progressively develop the physical and cognitive abilities required to manage risks
  • Reflection and discussion – in the older studios, after each activity, educators engage in discussions with children to reflect on their experiences, encouraging them to identify challenges they overcame, risks they managed, and lessons learned.

Hayley Yates, a lead educator at our Yatala campus agrees that discussions with children previously help prepare for and mitigate risk.

“We support risky play through our discussions with the children,” Hayley says. “If it’s something that has a big risk, example climbing trees, we talk about what we should look out for when climbing, how big the branches need to be to be safe and things of that nature. For both the younger and older children we use language like ‘Notice how this is this? Another example would be walking on slippery rocks, I would say ‘notice how that rock is wet? That might be slippery’, then giving them the option to continue to that rock or a different one.”

Hayley says through important discussions educators are guiding children by asking questions and role modelling safe behaviours.

We offer our little scholars the chance to get away from the get outside and enjoy the natural playground our environment offers us. It also allows them to assess and take risks that are so pertinent to their development, wellbeing and even their memories. Bush kinder is that reset, that step outside into fresh and get an education completely unique to any other they receive or will receive.

What is Bush Kinder?

Bush Kinder is a nature-based learning program designed to help children develop an appreciation for the outdoors and its many wonders. Bush kinder offers children an education that is a tremendous complement to the enriched educational program they receive at Little Scholars.
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At Little Scholars, we believe that spending time in nature has numerous benefits for children, including improved physical health and strength, enhanced cognitive development, and better emotional regulation. Through our Bush Kinder program, children have the opportunity to connect with nature on a deep level, learn about the environment, be challenged beyond the classroom, and engage in meaningful, hands-on experiences.

During our Bush Kinder sessions, children have the opportunity to engage in a range of activities, from nature walks and bird watching to building shelters and learning about indigenous culture. Children climb, scramble, jump and more in nature’s playground.

In this natural environment, children encounter diversity, novelty, challenges, and even some calculated risks. Their senses come alive as they engage with sticks, tree holes, water, rocks, sand, and dirt—nature’s abundant toys.

Our Bush Kinder educators are highly experienced and qualified in outdoor education and child development. They are passionate about providing children with meaningful learning experiences in a safe and supportive environment. We take the safety and security of our children very seriously. Our Bush Kinder program is conducted in a safe and secure outdoor environment, with strict protocols in place to ensure the well-being of all children.

But risky play is not limited to bush kinder.

Our outdoor areas are thoughtfully designed, including forts and equipment, all with intention of helping children navigate risk, endure challenges and build motor and fine motor skills.

Helena Vairy, an educator at our Ormeau Village campus, shares an example of how she helps children assess risk and how to complete ‘risky’ tasks safely.

“The way I like to teach children to access risk are by providing them with the materials which are needed and seeing how the children act on these,” Helena says. “

“The other week myself and a couple of the Kindergarten children set up the sandpit I placed the crates in a line and stacked one on top of the other. One child Mahli said ‘this looks like a runway maybe we can walk and then jump off the crates.’ What a great idea this was, the children were nervous at first but I stood right next to them to help. I asked the children, ‘do you think you can jump off the crated and land with your feet flat?’ I then demonstrated and the children too were off jumping.

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At the start of this experience, I asked the children, ‘would you like me to hold your hand while you jump?’ or ‘let’s count to three and then jump,’ this encouraged the children to not feel nervous and that someone was there to support them if they needed them. Five minutes after setting this experience up, there was a line up to jump off the crates the children all started saying ‘1 2 3 jump all together!’ We had a helper who racked the jump area to make the faller soft if their peers needed it.’

We love this story because it shares how children lead their own learning experience, consider risks, and support and encourage each other.

All of our campuses have recently introduced woodworking stations, designed to help children exercise their creative and critical thinking skills. It allows them to express their ideas and figure out solutions to their projects. It’s also a great way to introduce risky play, as the risks are managed and educators are actively supervising, but woodworking teaches children about safety and understanding risk.

“As they pick up their hammers, they’re getting ready to work on their pincer grip,” says Katie, educational leader at our Parkwood campus. “Things like that prepare them for school. In order to prepare to help the children use these safely, we’ve been having group discussions and asking them different questions about how to use the tools, what they think the tools do and what they can make in the future.”

It’s clear that risky play isn’t just about letting children run wild; it’s a calculated approach to help them develop essential life skills. At Little Scholars, we’re not just about keeping your little ones safe; we’re about preparing them for life. Our educators are trained to guide children in assessing risks, making it a learning experience that builds confidence and safe judgment. So, parents, it might be time to loosen the reins a bit. Let’s trust our children to make informed decisions, even if it means resisting the urge to shout, ‘Be careful!’ every so often. After all, life is full of risks and challenges, and what better time to learn how to navigate them than in the formative early years? You’ll be amazed at what they can achieve when given the freedom to explore, assess, and conquer.

We know you want to give your child the best possible start in life. We foster nurturing relationships between our educators and your child, building and gaining their trust so we can support your child as they take on risks and challenges safely and confidently. Book a tour today to get started!

Further reading:

Did you know that clay is not only a fun material for children to play with but also incredibly beneficial for their development?

What’s fantastic about clay is its open-ended nature. There’s no right or wrong way to play with it, giving children the freedom to explore and express themselves. Whether they’re rolling it into balls, flattening it into pancakes, or creating intricate sculptures, each action reveals something unique about them. It could be their level of focus, their creativity, or even how they approach problem-solving.

You might be surprised to learn that playing with clay hits multiple developmental milestones. It’s not just about getting their hands dirty; it’s about building essential life skills. Here’s how:

Benefits include:

  • Children develop hand-eye coordination by squeezing, patting, and pounding the clay
  • They also develop finger and hand muscles by poking and pinching the clay
  • It allows children to be creative and learn about texture, shapes, and forms by manipulating the clay by rolling, cutting, and shaping it
  • It gives children experience making three-dimensional objects that can be reused or recycled when dry
  • It allows children to socialise with others while working on collaborative projects or sharing ideas
  • Children can learn to express feelings and ideas in a safe and engaging way.

These are all important skills for children, especially as they prepare to move into formal education. The benefit of using clay is that it’s a natural, moldable medium that can be used as a cement, an adhesive and even a paint.

The Experts Weigh In

Paul R White, an American clinical social worker, has been using clay as a therapeutic tool for over 30 years. In his book, CLAYtherapy, he talks about how clay play can naturally facilitate meaningful conversations between children and adults. He developed numerous unique aids and techniques that have assisted him in teaching children to cope with stress, express feelings and to solve problems, including through the use and manipulation of clay. White also presented a paper on clay therapy to the World Congress of Child Play Therapy and Child Psychotherapy in London, England.

He has used clay in his practice as an ice breaker, as an aggression reliever and as a primary tool in treatment.

In his book, White says “Through mutual clay play, a conversation between child and counselor automatically emerges. Dialogue doesn’t have to be forced or fabricated, but happens naturally when the counselor is revealing, demonstrating and teaching this dynamic and engaging clay process and the child is asking, learning and experiencing his or her own trial and error. This manner of interaction links the adult with the child through a hands-on, verbal, nonintrusive, problem-solving counselling process.”

Lisa Terreni, a senior lecturer in early childhood education, also champions the use of clay. She believes it gives children another language for expressing their thoughts and ideas.

“From many anecdotal observations of children using clay I feel strongly that, apart from teaching young children the physical skills required to use the medium successfully to create three dimensional artworks, using clay gives children another language for expressing their thoughts, ideas and emerging working theories about their world,” she said in a blog post for Early Arts.

Marvin Bartel, a professor of art at Goshen College in the United States, says in a blog post on his website that ‘clay is so fascinating that some children work for long periods without any adult motivation to maintain their interest. It can be a great way to extend the attention span of some children.’

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According to experts from Pennsylvania State University, children will show many parts of themselves through clay experiences:

  • Approaches and reactions to a new material (imagination, steps of involvement, temperament, feelings)
  • Initiative, curiosity, and problem solving
  • Technique and manipulation (what they do and what skills they use)
  • Physical development (small and large motor skills)
  • Ideas in representational forms (connecting ideas to meaning, symbolic demonstrations)
  • Expression and communication (language, literacy, and social and emotional skills)
  • Interactions and progressions over time (with other people, other materials)

Fine and Large Muscle Development

One of the lesser-known but incredibly important benefits of clay play is muscle development. When children manipulate clay, they’re actually engaging both fine and large muscles, which is crucial for their physical development.

  • Fine Motor Skills Actions like pinching, poking, and rolling small pieces of clay engage the smaller muscles in the fingers and hands. These movements are essential for tasks like holding a pencil, buttoning a shirt, or tying shoelaces.
  • Large Muscle Skills When children knead, pound, or push the clay, they’re using their arms, shoulders, and even their core muscles. These large muscle activities are foundational for skills like lifting, pushing, and pulling.

What the research says

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Anxiety

One study in Iran aimed to examine the impact of clay therapy and narrative therapy on reducing anxiety levels in pre-school children. The study involved 30 kindergarten children who were divided into three groups: 10 in the clay therapy group, 10 in the narrative therapy group, and 10 in the control group. The study found significant differences in anxiety levels among the groups. Both the clay therapy and narrative therapy groups showed a reduction in anxiety compared to the control group. The clay therapy group had a mean score of 3.63, and the narrative therapy group had a mean score of 2.83, both of which were significantly different from the control group’s mean score of -0.71. However, there was no significant difference between the clay therapy and narrative therapy groups in terms of anxiety reduction.

The study concludes that both clay and narrative therapies are effective in improving self-esteem, school performance, and sociability of the children, as reported by the parents.

Psychosocial Wellbeing

Another study out of Kenya, looked at how clay play supported children who lost access to schools during the pandemic, affecting children’s right to education and their psychosocial wellbeing.

The study, published in the East African Journal of Arts and Social Sciences, looked into the psychosocial effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on children and how play, particularly with painting and clay modelling, can be a therapeutic and educational tool. The paper argues that these forms of play can help children cope with the stresses and traumas induced by the pandemic, while also promoting cognitive and social learning.

The study argues that play with art forms like painting and clay modelling can be powerful tools for cognitive and social learning. They can also serve as therapeutic activities to counter depression and violent behaviour. Activities such as clay modelling and painting are described as non-serious activities that free the mind and are excellent for expression. Clay is described as a malleable material that can be easily manipulated, while painting offers a colourful medium for expression.

The study suggests that these art-based activities should be integrated into the curriculum, especially for children aged four to six, to enhance their psycho-motor and creativity development.

Fine Motor Skills

An Indonesian study investigated the impact of constructive play with clay on children’s fine motor skills. The small study by researchers from STKIP Kusuma Negara included two groups of 11 children each, one as the experimental group and the other as the control group. The study used test observation techniques for data collection and employs both descriptive and nonparametric statistical analysis. The results indicated a significant difference between the two groups, suggesting that constructive play with clay positively impacts children’s fine motor skills.

In the study, the authors highlight the physical aspects of working with clay.

“Working with clay fosters large muscle and fine motor control. Clay is fairly resistant and will need to be kneaded and worked to make it pliable. Children can stand or sit while using clay. Standing provides the advantage of a whole-body muscular reaction to the clay. Hard clay provides solid resistance the child must overcome. This will involve using the shoulders, arms, hands, and fingers. Playing with clay develops large muscles and fine motor control because the clay is quite resistant and kneaded to make it soft.”

The benefits of clay play in early childhood development are supported not only by expert opinions but also by a growing body of scientific research. From fostering creativity and social skills to enhancing both fine and large muscle development, clay play serves as a multifaceted educational tool.

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