This week, I gave a talk about introducing “risky play” in early childhood classrooms. I talked about the situations and reasons that first spurred me to think about risky play, I talked about some of the reasons risky play is so important to development, and I talked about some of the different play I’ve observed in my classroom, and some ways that children use materials in physically challenging ways.
What I couldn’t answer though, was how to make this happen.
How do you set up indoor and outdoor environments that encourage children to engage in risk-taking play that allows them to explore ideas of safety, control, and self-regulation? How do you choose materials for this? Most of all, how do you plan for this all to happen? The answer – I don’t know. Of course, some materials lend themselves to open ended problem solving more than others. Teachers can present materials and set up spaces that provoke the question “What can I do with that?” But once a child asks that question, it’s the teacher’s reaction that shapes what happens next.
Education catalogs are full of materials to create beautiful outdoor environments. There are countless blogs and websites with tips on how to create a “Reggio-inspired classroom.” I’ve had discussions with teachers who proudly proclaim that they’ve painted their walls beige, thrown out the plastic toys, and brought tree stumps inside for the children to sit on. All of this might be aesthetically pleasing, but there’s no automatic connection between any of these things and children’s learning and exploration. For learning and exploration to happen, the teachers need to let it happen.
Allowing children to engage in risky or challenging play involves risk on the part of the teacher. The teacher needs to trust that the children know what they’re doing, and that learning will take place. The teacher needs to trust the children’s ideas, and trust that the children are competent to discover their own questions, seek out answers, and use materials in their own creative and innovative ways – even ways the teacher didn’t expect or imagine.
Creative play is about mindset, not materials.
The most creative and thought-provoking materials will lead nowhere if teachers don’t allow them to. There’s nothing magical about a tree stump or a basket of pebbles and shells. The magic comes when children are given the freedom to test their limits – to test the limits of how high they can climb or how far they can jump, how many small pieces they can pour out and spread across the floor, how many combinations and substances they can mix, dump, and fill.
The magic is in testing the limits of innovation, and discovering ways to use materials in a new way, whether they’re sticking toys into playdough or using tempera paint to trace designs up and down their arms. And the magic is in testing out social relationships, as they discover that their words have power and meaning, and sometimes consequences, and learn to navigate the complicated world of interacting with others, some who may be friends, and some who aren’t.
The magic is in the mindset of the teacher – the teacher who allows the children’s exploration to unfold, and knows how to guide it, not stop it. The materials mean nothing, without the mindset to let the magic happen, to trust in the children that their play will be okay, and it might even be amazing.