At Brenbeal Children’s Centre, the ‘risky play’ space means that children can explore their physical world with unabashed freedom. Kindergarten teacher Linda Churchyard talks about the benefits for children’s development.
Early Childhood member Linda Churchyard works at Brenbeal Children’s Centre in Footscray, a small non-profit, community-based centre with a parent committee of management and low staff turnover. “We run an indoor/outdoor program with a very flexible routine and mostly open-ended experiences, so children can pursue their own interests,” Linda says.
One of Linda’s areas of expertise is in the realm of ‘risky play’, which includes problem-solving, balance and coordination, and building resilience. Amongst other benefits, risky play is said to help develop the hidden senses: proprioception (in joints, muscles and tendons), vestibular (inner ear) and enteroception (our body’s ability to identify sensations from internal organs).
“I think the essence of a risky play space is freedom. It’s important to trust the children. We do our very best to stand back and observe before intervening in play.”
She notes that a lot of what is now labelled as risky used to be considered normal. “When I was a kid, playgrounds were few and far between, and the equipment in them was designed for all ages. So, the monkey bars and the slide were really high. There was no safety strap on the swing, and no one stopped us from walking across the big old seesaws and balancing in the middle.”
While it makes sense to minimise accidents, she believes children’s development relies in part on overcoming physical risk. “To me, risky play spaces are simply places where kids can experiment and explore without constant adult interference. Research shows that children are naturally drawn to risky play.
They want to climb high, run fast, wrestle, crash into things. We provide the space and time kids need to try things out.”
At Brenbeal, there are also plenty of “loose parts” for the children to play with. “Milk crates, traffic cones, planks, old cushions and blankets, tyres, bike wheels… really, whatever we can lay our hands on! And we stack them in one part of the yard, but we don’t restrict where children take them, or how they combine them.”
At Brenbeal, the staff have a responsibility to remove unexpected hazards, like broken equipment, and to supervise. No other special safety measures are required. “Our climbing equipment meets safety standards, and we have soft fall areas,” explains Linda.
“We will complete a risk assessment for some things, like when we use the fire pit. And, of course, we take natural precautions. For example, if we see someone trying to climb the tree, we stand nearby. We might put a crashmat over any rocks.
“We don’t help kids climb, because we believe that if they can’t manage on their own, then they aren’t ready to do it. But we will help children down if they are stuck.”
This all sounds like common sense – something Linda says most kids innately possess. “What many people don’t realise is that kids will instinctively assess risks for themselves. They’re not stupid. If something is too high, they won’t climb it. If they don’t feel safe, they will retreat.”
Her advice on overseeing risky play areas is “to take it slow”. “When you see something that concerns you, take a deep breath and resist the urge to stop things. Watch for a minute and see how the kids involved are managing the risk.”
She says the response to the risky play space at her kindergarten has been very positive, especially from the children themselves. “The most important thing about a risky play space is the lack of restrictions. Kids will thrive when they are allowed to try things out and challenge themselves.
“When we let go of our need to control and limit what children are allowed to do, we also let go of a lot of our negative language.” This, she says, also makes it easier to establish good relationships with the children.
Linda has been an AEU member since she first started teaching in 2003, and the union has played an important role throughout her career.
“I have been supported at a time when I was experiencing workplace bullying; I have had accurate advice on industrial questions; I have been able to meet other like-minded teachers,” Linda says.
She adds, with hard-won wisdom, “And, of course, the most important thing about being a union member is the collective action that has led to enormous improvements in pay and conditions for early childhood teachers and educators across my 20-plus-year career.”
AND ANOTHER THING… 9 QUESTIONS FOR LINDA CHURCHYARD
The most important things I take into the classroom every day are… a sense of humour and some good books for story time.
The most important things to leave at home… negative thoughts.
The best advice I ever received was… give the children lots of time for uninterrupted play.
My top piece of advice to someone starting out in education would be… to trust the children to know what they need.
My favourite teacher at school was… my Grade 3 teacher, Miss Bain.
The people I admire most are… teachers. We deserve admiration!
The music or book that changed my life was… Animal Farm by George Orwell. It was the bridge I needed to move from young adult to adult literature.
In my other life… I like to read, take walks in nature, and catch up with friends and family.
If I met the education minister, I’d tell them… that better wages and conditions for all education staff are needed for us to manage the workload and live up to the expectations placed upon us.