Let Them Play With Sticks!

boy playing with a stick

chefranden / Creative Commons / CC BY-SA 2.0

Parents share their opinions on whether or not kids should be allowed to wield these eternally appealing toys.

When a stick comes out at a playground, you can hear the collective gasp from parents nearby. There's usually an intervention staged immediately to prevent the stick from continuing to be used, but I'm never quite sure if it's because the parent is actually worried about their child's safety or more about what the other parents will think.

Sticks are an oddly vilified toy in the world of modern parenting, and yet I cannot think of another item from the natural world, so abundant and available, that delights a child as much. Children gravitate to sticks instinctively from a young age, and yet parents are quick to banish them as soon as a child gets their hands on one. Is this reasonable?

The No More Helicopter Parenting Facebook page, affiliated with Let Grow, is the site of a hot debate on the topic of sticks, with 80+ parents sharing their thoughts and experiences. The consensus – which isn't surprising coming from this source – is that sticks are a great toy ("the original toy!"), as long as they're used wisely. Running, hitting, and poking with sticks is not allowed, but play sword-fighting with willing participants is considered fine.

A few parents disagree, pointing out that their children usually threaten their siblings with sticks, and there were a couple upsetting examples of people whose eyes had been hurt by stick injuries, which is of course every parent's nightmare. But generally, parents approved wholeheartedly, realizing that the benefits outweigh the risks, especially if rules are enforced.

One mother wrote, "Sticks are the best! They turn into magic wands and swords that can be used against dragons. I pity every child who is not allowed to use them. How do you fight of monsters or check the deep of puddles?"

There are some smart suggestions for how to manage stick play. One is that all children must agree to the game and understand that there's a risk of injury – as much as a child can, of course. One parent commented, "I let my almost 3-year-old play with sticks. I tell him he can hit the trees with the stick, hit the ground, hit the water, but don't hit people." Another said,

"We follow our son's forest school stick rules for continuity and because we're comfortable setting those limits for now. Arm-length sticks can be wielded and used as wands. Bigger sticks can be used as walking stick or dragged like dragon tails. We like to think of the rules as good stick manners!"

I love this notion of 'good stick manners'. It suggests that a stick is not inherently dangerous, but that its riskiness is determined by the way it's used, as is the case with every toy. It trusts the child to learn those rules and stick to them (pun fully intended) or else lose the privilege of wielding such a toy.

The whole idea behind free-range parenting is to allow our children greater access to the world so that they are able to test their limits and push boundaries before the consequences get too dire. It challenges children instead of sheltering them, and turns out young adults who are not afraid of everything once pushed out into the world on their own.

So, let them play with sticks. Stop fearing every possible scenario and let them learn what it feels like to swoosh, swipe, and swerve with a stick in hand. There's nothing quite like it.