Playing with Fire

Playing with Fire

The idea of preschoolers playing with fire is alarming, indeed disturbing. But two sessions held recently at Redwood Playcentre have been about kindling kids’ natural curiosity about fire, igniting their imaginations - and teaching them about being safe. 

Michelle Harvey is a Playcentre mum from Shirley Playcentre who knows all about the damage that fire can cause. Michelle was Dunedin’s first paid female fire-fighter, and she worked as a youth liaison officer for the Fire Awareness Intervention Programme. ‘Unfortunately I dealt with a few cases where children learnt the hard way the dangers that come from playing with fire’, she shares. 

Michelle speaks of the ‘natural curiosity of preschoolers – who want to know about their world’. But she is adamant that the best approach is to ‘educate children in a safe way, rather than safety-proofing everything’.

‘If we tell a child not to play with fire, the child isn’t learning anything. And they are then more likely to play with it in secret – which presents a greater danger to both people and property.’

Combining her passion for Playcentre and her considerable knowledge and experience around fire-safety, Michelle runs Fire Play workshops for Playcentre parents from around Canterbury.

Parents at Redwood Playcentre had been to one of Michelle’s workshops and were excited to try out some of the ideas she had shared, explains Coordinator Katrina Knill.

‘We have a lot of budding firefighters, who regularly dress up and, with hoses and ladders, put out various “fires” around the centre’, she continues. And, while the kids don’t need real fire to have a really exciting adventure, their interest certainly presented an exciting idea – and opportunity for learning. ‘We thought we’d try something new - and light the fires!’

So they swept up the dry leaves under the veranda and brought out a table, as well as a bucket of water. Katrina’s son Toby (4) and friend Avikash (4) – two keen fire-fighters – came prepared with safety goggles and breathing masks.

‘We had a big safety talk about fires – and throughout the experiments, the kids were responsible and cautious’, says Katrina.

‘We started by putting a jar over a lit candle – and the flame slowly went out. We put a candle in a bowl with some vinegar, and the tamariki added baking soda – the gas put the flame out! We couldn’t re-light the candle for a while afterwards as the gas would put the match out. We put a candle under a balloon and it popped straight away. But when the balloon had water in it, it didn’t pop – not until the water had heated up. Toby waited for the balloon to pop with his hands over his ears.’

‘At the end, we lit a fire under a volcano in the sandpit and toasted marshmallows.’

For young Toby, there were so many highlights to the session. Climbing a ladder to rescue a cat (real ladder, pretend cat, pretend fire) was really fun. But putting out the real fire under the volcano was ‘the best – it went swish swish’. 

As Michelle says, ‘teaching children how to respect elements and learn with them safely is empowering for children’.

‘It sounds rather mad introducing fire to pre-schoolers’, admits Katrina. Of course, like Michelle, Katrina knows that learning is not about reducing children’s experiences to safety-proofed, sanitised ones.

Playing with fire, the children at Redwood Playcentre were able to test theories, recognise and respond to risks, try out different roles and relationships… You see, play is more than simply a force that spreads like wild fire: it is how kids learn.



Playing with Fire

Posted: Thursday 27 October 2016