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Stick Play is Risky Play

Whatever potential harm they may cause, and however many tears may be shed over a whack to the body, I’ve witnessed that playing with sticks brings more benefits than harm if we can guide children to use them responsibly, compassionately and imaginatively.

When I first began teaching in the forest, I experienced my children occasionally hitting each other with sticks. Particularly on those days ruled by that fierce, masculine warrior energy of Mars. Fortunately, we never experienced a major injury-more hurt feelings of betrayal or shock than any cuts or bruises. However, we did have a 4 year old with an especially cautious parent. She came to pickup one afternoon and received her son’s lament that another child hit him with a stick. The mother, very upset, questioned me, and asked if I could eliminate stick play. I responded “no” almost immediately, although I also did not want that to happen again nor to another child. I just knew it would be impossible- sticks are everywhere in the forest and children are very naturally inclined and inspired to pick them up.

After standing our ground, we softened, and it became a teaching opportunity for us both. We kept stick play, but taught the children to measure the sticks on their arms, so that they could find the right length - one appropriate for their depth perception and fine motor skills. I immediately witnessed the valuable STEM lesson in this new rule. What I didn’t expect: once I empowered the kids to measure the sticks along their arm instead of commanding, “no hitting” or “put the stick down” - their behavior with them changed and it rarely posed an issue again.

Sticks are a great example of the power and importance of risky play. Children feel joyful, empowered, magical, confident and strong when they’re holding them. Instead of avoiding sticks because of the risk they pose, we can give children the tools to master their complexity. In that process, they’re learning the social/emotional skills of empathy, boundaries and communication. They’re learning measuring, risk assessment and analysis, comparison, force and velocity. Annnd they get the added benefit of joyful, imaginative play as they transform into knights, wizards, fairies, musicians, pirates, astronauts, t-Rex dinosaurs, etc. Life is risky, and in order to be authentic, confident and successful humans, we need to be willing to take risks. For this, we need to be able to trust ourselves enough to feel safe. If we empower vs. control, not only do we give our children self-knowledge and mastery, but we give them permission to express their joy and imagination.

Thank you trees for your magical offering of sticks! We love them!

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