Sticks Need Space
A stick helps your child’s imagination grow but creates unease among the surrounding adults. Explaining that “sticks need space” can help them play with their stick/wand/horse/sword more safely.
Picture a summer Sunday in 1990. Two older generations of an extended family are sitting around a cabin picnic table at coffee time, taking a break from gardening. The third generation, all cousins under age 8, are mostly running in circles around the cabin. Who knows who’s chasing who, but they are all running with sticks.
As is usual when there are 17 members of one family in one place, the parent/grandparent/aunt/uncle’s reactions are varied.
“Somebody’s gonna get hurt!” calls Grandpa.
“Be careful!” shouts Auntie.
“Put those sticks down!” yells Uncle.
Silence from the parents. The kids run past for the third time.
“We walk with sticks!” exclaims one mum who finally remembers the phrase that a friend recommended.
“Let them go. They’ll learn soon enough if they get hurt,” says one dad.
“Come on, guys! Nana’s freaking out. Put down the sticks,” calls Grandpa, as the kids disappear around the corner.
A scream comes from the other side of the cabin.
“Who got hurt this time?” The parents of the youngest child run off to see.
I bet the only words the kids heard as they ran past the adults was “Somebody…careful…sticks…sticks…go…guys…sticks!” They needed to hear one single message.
“Sticks need space.”
You’re never going to stop stick play. You’d never want to. Sticks are the single most versatile toy that’s ever existed. Children need to be free to explore their world and test their abilities. They need to run with sticks and build forts and challenge themselves. They need to know what it means to take risks and fail as well as to take risks and succeed. They need to know we trust them to explore what their growing bodies can do.
You don’t want to curb their imagination, but you do want to set some basic boundaries for safety. When they’re little, it’s easy to jump in to prevent a toddler from whacking his friend while playing. You reach out your arm to block the stick and say “I won’t let you hit your friend. Hitting hurts. Sticks can hurt.”
But once your child has graduated to outside adventure play in the forest or field, the best ground rule for stick play is that “sticks need space”.
At the beginning of group play, you can ask the children to make sure everyone’s sticks have space. Encourage them to be aware of the people around them, the ground under their feet, the trees that might be in their path. “Sticks need space” really means “Look around you. Be aware of the people and things around you. Are you keeping yourself and your friends safe? What’s your plan with the stick?”
Once you hear the plan, don’t hesitate to encourage safe play while continuing to engage their imaginations by adding a quick safety tip in character. “Ah! You’re a knight, you say! Remember, good knight, that you must always wipe the blade before placing it in your scabbard for safety.” You can demonstrate how a horse rider would watch the ground for safe footing for the horse. You can act out how the hockey player keeps the hockey stick on the ice. Then send them off and try not to further interrupt the flow of play.
If you need to jump in when you see unsafe play, you don’t need to shout, “Be careful!” You just might want to ask, “Do you need more space? It looks like you’re in a busy area of the playground. Where do you think you should move so your stick has enough space?”
Once the ground rules are set, you might discover that the only thing you need to say to that roaming group of cousins in future is, “Sticks need space.” And the cousins might just run together to the other end of the grass. And there, the sticks may become dragons that fly. And we all know that dragons need space!