Is it worth the risk?
I have been working with a school, in Kingston, recently who have decided to start using real tools such as hammers, with the children. They have some concerns around this, one of them being how to introduce this to parents given the fact that some have already complained about children being outside when it is cold!
I have always ensured that risk-taking was addressed at all new parent meetings, particularly when showing prospective parents around the school! Forewarned is forearmed as they say! During the tour of the school, I would point out children using real tools, show them how safely and sensibly they were using them and explain how they were introduced but, more importantly, I would explain the benefits. The reasons why children needed these opportunities.
Of course, there are risks involved in lots of activities but life isn’t risk-free and children need to learn how to manage risk at a young age, surrounded by supportive adults, in order to ensure they can do this independently, and safely, as they go out into the world. With outdoor play becoming more and more restricted and children ferried from activity to activity by over-anxious parents, it is often not until they are of secondary school age that children experience some freedom. Greater freedom, however, equals greater risk. According to The AA, 11 year olds are more than twice as likely to be killed, or seriously injured than 10 year olds, on the journey to and from school.
Far too often practitioners shut down play that appears too risky rather than discuss what is bothering them, with the children. Children are far more adept at identifying risk than they are given credit for, they just need to be given the opportunity to think about it! Rather than stopping a game or activity that looks risky, why not ask the children what is it that they think is worrying you? They will usually be able to tell you. Dynamic, or in the moment risk assessment, supports practitioners in weighing up the benefits such as challenge, problem-solving, perseverance, collaboration, use of tools etc., against the risks. If the benefits outweigh the risks then measures can be taken to mitigate these with the children.
I observed group of reception children recently, building with loose materials. A child swung round with a plank over his shoulder, almost hitting another child around the head. I asked the question and he was immediately able to say what concerned me and, more importantly, what needed to be done to mitigate the risk. We discussed it as a group and the children showed me how they would carry the planks from then on!
Fortunately, there are a number of documents and articles that support the discussion on the benefits of risk-taking, with parents and even anxious school leaders. Amanda Speilman (HM Chief Inspector) in an interview last August, discussed the need for schools to enable children to take risks, as not to do so “deprives children of rewarding experiences, of the opportunity to develop resilience and grit and which makes it hard for them to cope with normal everyday risk.”
The Health and Safety Executive (2012) stated that ‘Play is great for children’s well-being and development. When planning and providing play opportunities, the goal is not to eliminate risk, but to weigh up the risks and benefits. No child will learn about risk if they are wrapped in cotton wool’.”
All schools should have risk assessments in place but the best of these detail the benefits as well as the risks. This helps practitioners to think more positively about risky play and plan for it more effectively. You can download a risk-benefit assessment from Play England. They have also provided a completed example for guidance. Learning Through Landscapes provide a range of risk assessments including one for using tools. They too have provided a written example.
Denmark’s Forest Kindergartens are great examples of how supportive adults can enable children to manage their own risk when using tools and climbing trees. The pedagogue’s tale of the only serious accident in 17 years is also quite eye-opening!
Start small, train practitioners in dynamic risk assessment and engage the children in the discussion – they will truly astound you with their insight.