The Wonders of Stick Play

The Wonders of stick play


"Put that stick down" 


"Careful with that stick"


"Don't pick that up its too heavy"


"You might hurt yourself" 


"That stick is too long, have this one" 


"No play fighting" 


“No weapons allowed in play”


It is very common that these phrases are used every day during children's free play, whether it is in an educational setting, at home or in the local park/playground. 

It is understandable why some adults may feel uncomfortable or anxious seeing a child playing with sticks; as they may be worried about the potential risks involved.

We are not sure of actual statistics for injuries occurred as a result of stick play but researching it, there seem to be more articles on injuries from a needle stick! 

We know that sticks can cause eye injuries or possible puncture wounds. Yet I have only witnessed minor injuries caused by sticks during children's play, such as a scratch, splinter or accidental hit. 


Much research and shows how important free play is for children allowing children to take risks, whilst learning to be able to manage their own risk. 


There are many beneficial factors to children when they are able to take and manage risk:

  • builds confidence and self-esteem 
  • builds independence 
  • builds resilience 
  • develops good problem solving skills 
  • develops critical thinking - thinking of ideas through trial and error

This also links well with rough play. Rough play is when two children or more have a physical interaction which consists of rough and tumble in a non-aggressive way. This is commonly seen when children are having free play with each other and is often quickly stopped. Rough play is beneficial and is a part of growing and learning; physically, promoting risk-taking, understanding and managing emotions. 

Various studies discuss the topic of rough and tumble play. Bright Hub Education mentions throughout education, teachers are encouraged to stop rough play, yet it is important for children to experience this.

Rough play fighting (or big body play) is not real fighting. During play fighting, children are smiling and laughing. They have relaxed muscles and open palms.

According to the National Association of the Education of Young Children, play fighting only escalates to real fighting one percent of the time, and this may be true due to the lack of supervision from adults and prior social concerns of the children involved (socially rejected or isolated) prior to the play fighting”.



Dr. Margot Sunderland mentions how important physical touch is during children's play. Quoted from The Science of Parenting, she states:


“The Power of Play

Brain scientists have found seven genetically ingrained emotional systems in this part of the brain. These systems are like muscles. The more we activate one of the systems, the more they become part of the personality. We share this system with other mammals.

 For centuries people have known that play is essential for a child, but now we have some astounding brain science to back this up.

 We are talking here particularly about physical relational play, the play between adult and child”.


With regard to the wonders of stick play, Forest School promotes the use of playing with natural materials whether it is general free play where children use their own imagination, for example to turn a stick into anything they want - Heuristic play; wands, guns, swords, telescopes, fishing rods, bow and arrows. The list is endless.

Forest School offers the opportunity to create things with sticks, whilst gathering knowledge and understanding about the different types of wood or children may use sticks in duel play such as sword fighting or pretending to be being superheroes.


We allow our children to play not only with sticks but with branches, twigs or logs.

Other benefits like developing their physical skills; lifting logs or building spatial awareness. Children engage in team collaboration, developing good communication skills, for example deciding where the branch is going to go or how are they going to carry it to their destination.


A part of the Forest School ethos is to ensure that we have Forest School rules in place that children follow to ensure that when they are playing and risk taking it is done in a safe way:

  • Holding sticks in an appropriate way if it is a certain length
  • Thinking about what we need to take into consideration when playing with sticks
  • Any stick games involving duelling – adults to support and show ways of keeping safe
  • Thinking about who is near you and the space you are in



I witnessed during one of our Forest School sessions two boys playing with long sticks and how nice the interaction between them was. What stood out was how they played with sticks in close proximity yet being gentle as well the communication taking place. They spoke to each other about the different moves as they demonstrated how many points could be scored.

As you watch the video, you can see sometimes that the moves they do may look worrying and that the possible injuries that could occur or how it could get out of hand. But they both accept each other’s demonstrations without aggression and are conscious of where the sticks are going.

I was nearby to offer support without getting too close as I didn’t want to intervene in their play.

For some, watching the video might make you think “I would stop that” or “that was too close” but why?.


Another example during our play scheme sessions, a group of children were planning to play a game based around foxes. They were discussing what type of foxes they were going to be; arctic foxes, desert foxes, forest foxes. As they were discussing, one of the children noticed two other children nearby playing with sticks and tried to include them in the game. The two children said “we’re not playing that game. We’re playing our own game”.

So the group of children began to play their game of family foxes. One of the children mentioned to the two children “you can be arctic foxes”. Again the two children said “we’re not playing that game. These are our guns”. The children playing foxes paused. One of the children with their stick raised it, making a gun noise “bang bang”.

The children playing foxes began to run away, shouting “oh no, quick they are trying to hunt us”. The two children looked at each other with a grin and started to chase the children around.

This magically turned into one game that allowed both groups’ interests to carry on and lasted the whole session.


Observing how this developed was just magical! 


I argue that children are only role-playing.


“When a child picks up a stick and uses it as a gun or makes an eye mask and proclaims that now he or she is ready “to save the world” – this is great dramatic play and can lead to wonderful learning. It is child initiated learning through play”.
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It is the adult’s duty to get children to understand the harm it has on people and talking about the different jobs that require a weapon and when they are used. 

It is better to make them understand and be aware of what is in the world instead of hiding them from it.  


  • How may it effect the animal species if they are hunted?
  • Is it ok to do this?
  • What could be the consequences?
  • Discuss the sport of fox hunting and why it was banned.


I admit it is not easy to let go of the habit of intervening in children’s play when you can see the possible dangers that may happen. It takes time to adjust, building up the confidence to be able to stand back, observe and enjoy the wonders of their play. How they manage risk, solve problems, hurting themselves and picking themselves back up independently.


We must allow our children to develop autonomy and resilience to be able to bounce back from problems/conflict they may face in the adult world.


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