It’s not something we do very often. In fact, as teachers, all we ever seem to do is exactly the opposite. We provide safe classrooms, safe playgrounds and play safe games or do safe activities. The OHS [Occupational Health and Safety] people are frequently seen walking around schools, with clipboards in hand, ticking off the boxes to make sure that every little inch of the school environment is as safe as it can be. Electrical plugs are checked annually, furniture is designed for safety over ergonomics and playgrounds are limited in their use by such rulings as ‘too hard to play ball’, ‘avoid the trees for risk of falling branches’ and playground equipment that is colourful and bright but tedious to use.
Gone are the days when such lethal weapons as the paper guillotine can be allowed anywhere near a school, let alone be used by children.
However, it presents us with a big question. Is this practise of taking the risk out of everything children do and providing nothing but safety nets in all activities, really such a good thing?
Sure, no teacher would ever want a child in their care to be at risk of danger, with their safety and care always being of paramount importance, but there are certainly elements about putting children at risk that will help them in their growth. So is right to remove these elements from a child’s learning? Does removing the heater from a younger child’s reach, for instance, solve the issue or make it worse? Surely we all need to learn that danger exists, so is it wise to live in safety bubbles?
Or what about the scenario of children spending some time out of their normal environment and moving out into nature? A Residential week/weekend can provide an opportunity for children to experience so much more than their normal everyday life may offer. Activities such as caving, extreme ropes, kayaking, archery, gilling and many more are not your every day activity for most children. And accordingly, they are usually monitored by trained and skilled professionals who know the best way to reduce any risks of danger. Safety harnesses, local knowledge, medical safety procedures and simple common sense ensure that children taking part in these types of activities are as safe, if not safer, than when they are playing together in their own home settings.
But what do the children think? What gives them the most enjoyment and provides them with the most fun? Yes fun! You know, that word that is slowly being pushed out of a child’s life and being replaced with learning, ambition, responsibility and making the right decision.
Well, if you take a moment to ask, the answers may surprise you.
A recent weekend away with 30 year 6 children in the Yorkshire Dales highlighted to me personally, how insulated we have made childrens’ lives. Coming from lower socio-economic backgrounds only served to enhance this fact. Many of these children had never experienced the ‘real outdoors’. They had no knowledge of what is out there in nature and were amazed at the little things we saw and experienced. Streams running out from little holes underground, mole holes and rabbit holes, bird footprints in the snow, sheep that had horns, cows that ran away when we walked by. It was these sights and experiences that gave them the most joy. Being able to climb a steep mountain path [a hill really] and jump over small streams as we held each other’s hands was such a joy to them that many did not want to go home. Sure, they loved the extreme activities as mentioned above, but it was the freedom to jump on a rock of their own choosing as they crossed a small stream, and fall down in the thick snow and look up into the sky above that made them feel alive and free. At one point we had to carefully walk down a steep slope, which was slippery due to overnight snow, and it meant that each child had to support one another and be made aware that there was a risk factor involved. The result. They absolutely loved it. The feeling of being in control of themselves and the thrill of the risk [abeit, very minor] meant that they could experience something which they normally cannot have.
When asked at the end of the weekend what was the best single moment, it was almost unanimous that this small moment of walking down a hill had given them the most joy. They discussed about how it meant they had to work as a team [a large focus of the whole weekend], take care with how they acted, and just how brilliant it was that they had all come through and survived the saga. Dramatic yes, but only in the sense that this is how it was perceived by the children.
And what did I learn from the experience? Basically, that yes, we must always strive to keep children safe, but no matter what the OHS people tell you, we definitely do need some risk in our lives as well. Taking out every single risk factor and making life squeaky clean and safe, may not always be the best option. How can we learn to be safe when all the dangers have been removed?
Some colleagues tell me I/we were brave in taking away the children and that the risk of lawsuits simply makes this all too hard. I disagree. I actually feel we are neglecting our duty as teachers if we do not give children these opportunities. As teachers, we should be making sure we develop and push the children in our care and what better way than putting them at risk from time to time…