Let's start with a simple statement - children need risk, and keeping children away from risk is not the same as keeping them safe. Fire falls into the six categories of risky play set by Sandseter (2007) as one of the dangerous elements, but risky play is in our nature; humans learn by being allowed to experiment and push boundaries. Looking back at how fire played a significant role in the evolution of our species, it is safe to say that humans mastered fire by ‘playing’ with it.
As mentioned before on our Facebook, if you research the two words together, "children/kids" & "fire", it will reveal two very opposite results. First will say that children should NOT be allowed to ‘play with/around’ or ‘get close to’; the other one will say that children NEED to be involved in learning and engaging about fire for their safety.
I am sure everyone knows which side we stand on.
But is fire safe? Well, yes and no.
It is healthy to be fearful of fire; it is powerful as it is unpredictable. It can injure us if not handled with care, it can be destructive if not managed, and always requires an understanding if the environment around it while remaining vigilant. Establishing rituals, expectations and values around fire opens the door to learning more about managing it safely. In the early stages of introducing children to fire, it's important to emphasise that fires always need to be supervised by an adult and always need to be contained. Teaching children that fire is a tool and not a toy is critical to prepare their mindset to treat fire with respect. Respect is the foundation of everything we do. And with such a mindset being passed on to young children, it empowers them to use it and not abuse it.
The real question here is HOW TO?
Staffing - you need to establish a project leader. Let that person take responsibility and lead the project, from training others, setting their expectations, and writing the policy or/and risk assessment. Our policy requires a person from a leadership team (a senior staff) to be present during the fire learning experience.
Space - establishing a space to run a fire learning experience is crucial. Each year we try moving around our big yard, but we understand that some Centres (or even our smaller rooms) don't have the same luxury, so you need to focus on the suitability of the space. We encourage spots that can be away from main open areas and that children could be seated, which reduces the risk of children running through the fire space where they may not be aware of their surroundings. We use a sandpit with our younger age groups with a rock wall. You need to ensure there are no easily flammable objects or even plants around, and you always have access to water or sand to put the fire down when required or out of control.
Safety - starts from talks, creating rules or even 'dry' provocations for younger children. Our creative educators set up provocations a month before our fire season begins to prepare children in a visual way for what's coming. The first fire of the season is always challenging, and it seems that children forget what they have learned as the excitement takes over. You should remind children about their responsibilities and the potential consequences of their actions if they aren't keeping each other safe. For example, one of the essential rules is walking around the fire on the OUTSIDE of the seating circle.
Establishing rituals - before the first match is lit, preparing the experience together may benefit educators and children. The children are the Centre of everything we do. Additionally, we do shift a lot of responsibilities towards the children, as we see them as capable. Starting from collecting firewood around the Service, redesigning the fire pit area, and chopping the kindlings.
Mixed age groups - this has been a focus in our Service for the past year, where the children across the Centre support one another. Older children help educators to teach younger peers and care for them; by demonstrating the techniques they have learnt over the years. Our observations show that toddlers and infants are much more receptive to peer-to-peer learning than following rules created by teachers.
Establishing the routines and rituals around the fire learning opportunity takes some time. Each year is different, and we - adults – consistently learn alongside the children.