Fire is a controversial subject. At the meeting it was agreed by all that making fires is a deep-seated need for many children. But it’s not clear what the best way is to fill that need while also balancing safety concerns for children and the people around them.
I believe that the best thing is to channel that need through exposure to the pleasures and risks of fire in a controlled manner, which is done in many play settings and uniform groups, enabling us to educate children about fire in an age-appropriate way.
We were lucky enough to have a break in the rain so that a group of children from the Nursery could demonstrate just how fire can be used in a play setting. Outside the museum, we watched as the children and Cindy, a PlayScape facilitator did a risk assessment of the area to make sure it was free of sticks and brush which could be set alight. They placed sand and stones to make a boundary that they all agreed not to step over unless they were invited, and they talked about being burned and what to do in case of an accident. Then, they were able to make a fire and cook marshmallows and toast; the only hiccups were when one of the children didn’t like bread!
Making toast over a campfire.
Clare Dean, Eureka! Nursery Early Years Professional, said the children got a good sense of the safety issues as well as seeing that fire can be fun, useful and not just dangerous.
We then spent an hour discussing some of the controversial issues surrounding fireplay, utilising the expert panel. The panel included a member of the Fire and Rescue Service, a child who engages in fireplay and practitioners/trainers who promote fire play. The differing viewpoints and the response from the audience has caused me to reflect. As a parent and a playful learning professional I am often torn about fire play, and in fact, many types of activities that we now consider to contain risk.
Research indicates that parents today are much more fearful and protective than they were 30 or 40 years ago. I want to let my children have the same freedom I experienced but I can’t help but worry. I know there is no evidence to support our fears, there are no increases in child abduction or child murders just more media coverage, and in fact there has been a 75% reduction of children killed on the roads between 1976 and 2006. Peter Cornell from RoSPA stated: 'We need to ask whether it is better for a child to break a wrist falling out of a tree, or to get a repetitive strain wrist injury at a young age from using a computer or video games console'.
When children spend time connecting with nature, getting dirty, getting cut by thorns, building fires they are learning important lessons for life and gaining a stong sense of safety outdoors. It is this knowledge that influenced my decision to be procative in providing experinces for my own children and their friends, I’m lucky enough to have a fire pit in my garden where I regulalry have groups of up to 10 children building and cooking on fires. They now have a clear understanding of the risks asssociated with fire, they have knowledge of what to use as kindling, what and when to add to make a good fire to cook on and the importance of using fallen wood so as not to interfere with the eco system. They also know not to leave the food on too long or else it get burned! When I see the kids in the school playground they always want to know when they can come again or recall stories from the evening before. I hope that, as well as the lessons learned, these are memories for life.
As a panel member, Kofi Johnson, 10 years old, was able to voice how important experience was for his learning and development. He said that he learns more about the health and safety aspects, and risks of using fire by doing and seeing, rather than being told.
The panel discussion touched on many different aspects of using fire in play, and sparked an active back and forth in the audience on topics such as:
• Why does it appear to be more acceptable for uniform groups to use fire than it is for the play sector?
• Is it the terminology we use in the play sector that influences people’s perspectives?
• How do we encourage teachers to see the benefits of fireplay in schools?
We also learned some interesting facts about fire and its societal implications, which raised their own questions.
Peter Lamb, Hull City Council, reported that since the introduction of designated social gateway centres, places where fires are lit and youth and young people are allowed to gather around them, there has been a reduction in vandalism to play equipment.
Gayle Elvidge from West Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service commented that the number of deliberately set fires they are called out to are reducing year on year. Do you think this could be because more children are exposed to structured sessions?
It was a constructive session but many of the questions remain unanswered; we’d love to hear your point of view and look out for footage and audio of the debate online soon.
Rebecca Johnson is the Director of Play and Learning at Eureka!