Saturday, 2 July 2011

A risky kid is a happy kid.

I cannot watch Michael Gove on television because a) he has a mouth like a cat's bum and b) everything that comes out of it is unmitigated shit that makes me want to destroy my television. Neither can I listen to him on the radio, as even though I can't actually see him, I can still hear him doing his posh spitty boy talking and spouting errant nonsense that he dresses up as policy. The newspapers are usually safe, although they do enjoy printing huge headshots of the man that make him look like Matt Smiths' newest nemesis. So it was, that perusing the Guardians Education section this morning, I came across this article about Health and Safety in schools. And this, on the BBC.http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-14000093 And now I find myself in a quandry. Because despite, with every fibre of my being detesting the odious little man, I am in agreement with him here. Oh god, I had to hairball that sentence out.

It is very true that the Health and Safety requirements for basic school trips are disproportionate. On taking 10 students from the History club to an underground nuclear bunker (helpfully signposted "secret nuclear bunker" to help us find it), I well remember the sheaves of paperwork and tedious write ups that allowed us to take them on a mini-bus and explore a site that was preparing for the end of the human world. The hideous room that showed them the exactly how the government was calculating deaths from nuclear war, suicide tablets, and the entrance corridor that turned a corner so as to enable the hoardes of ordinary folk who didn't want to die and were invading, to be mown down by government forces, may have given them nightmares, and in fact made one of them quite panicky. But really, walking round a museum (albeit an underground one) is not a high risk activity. Children who go to History club (aka "geek club") are pretty much risk averse and more into re-enacting the telemark skiers with little play men and dice than taking risks. It really would have made life easier if I could just have written their names down on an excursion list and driven off. 

On the other hand, one field trip that found me standing neck high in flowing, freezing water trying to measure how quickly the floating orange came past me was certainly less fun, and more risky. In the first instance, taking a bus load of year 11's to the Norfolk coast in February is going to be problematic. Not only had manay of them never seen a beach and hence, went crazy ("No! Come back! The water is cold! And the locals have never seen a bunch of youths of many hues running amok!"), but much of it was genuinely risky. Wading rivers, climbing, and measuring wave force in freezing water was pretty horrible, and did need those forms. A useful form would also have been one that covered the teacher for lapse in duty due to lack of sleep, as the whole 4 days saw about 2 hours of rest for me, and much standing sentry between dorms, shouting and being stern. So yes, in some instances, the fuss is necessary, and it would be a good thing to allow common sense to triumph. Provided that the schools are not then going to be sued to buggery by angry parents if anything does go wrong. I notice that Gove has made no comments to this effect.

I also think it's part of a wider issue. We do cocoon our children. And whilst it's perfectly easy for me to go all nostalgia: Spangles, out till tea, no mobiles, etc etc, it's also true to say that the world is different now. I was allowed out all day alone from an early age, with the company of the dog and some sandwiches, but this was less to do with the world being safer, and more to do with the attitude of my parents and the media. There is no more child centered crime than there has ever been, but there is more reporting. I dare say that there are fewer accidents now. No longer do we have those eerie ads telling us not to swim in quarries, or climb up electricity pylons to get a frisbee, because far fewer kids are roaming around free with a couple of soggy sarnies in a bag, a frisbee, and a dog, like I was. Out of my window at the moment, I can see some 11 plus kids on bikes on the grass, and their parents in the front gardens. I can't see any kids wandering through the corn fields at the back of the gardens, which I certainly would have been at their age. I see few children under 11 out front. I see fewer kids at the park, and more walking around plugged into those annoying beepy nintendos. At 4. I see a lot of parents with medicated hand gels, a lot who drive rather than walk, a lot who panic. And this is why a little risk is necessary.

I remember panicking when, at nearly term with daughter, I coudln't move quickly enough to get to the big slide, as son, then 14 months, was teetering at the edge. He was fine. It was a turning point. As soon as daughter arrived, the sterilising that sons' implements had undergone was abandoned. Daughter scavenged for his scraps, stuffing whole carrot sticks that had been on the floor into her gummy mouth. I called it baby-led weaning. I let him climb as high as he dared. One mother remonstrated with me for allowing him a knife, a real one, at 18 months. He was fine. How sharp is a cutlery knife anyway? Take a breath. Yes, I covered the plug sockets, but I didn't clamp down the cupboards. I encouraged him to use the stairs. He ate bugs, worms, caterpillars, and once, something unidentifiable from behind the radiator. Sometimes both of them go to bed dirty. They kiss the chickens and cart them about. They play out front and on the paths. They made a den in the ditch at the end of the garden. At the park, they plunge off of the top of climbing frames, and use slides and swings in ways they were not intended to be used.  And all this is good. Risk assessment is a valuable life skill in a child. So is determination and bloodymindedness. I have casually shouted "Just get up" across a park, to horrified stares, and seen daughter just climb up again. I've turned round to see son balancing, one footed, on his bike saddle. I've not stopped him. A bump is sometimes worth it. (And, i've noticed, a  bump is always worse with an audience..... alone, daughter can plummet from the slide and get up and climb again. If she sees you watching her plummet, it's a Bette Davis death scene.)

So yes, introduce a bit more risk. Let students set potassium going. Let kids go kayaking without the teacher having to fill in 50 pages of pointless crap. But also, make risk play more available. Don't close footpaths in favour of farmers (endemic in Fenland). Make more footpaths. Build more parks (and no, a "park" is not a small, fenced in area with two baby swings and a slide I could step over). Build parks with wild spaces, with trees, with dens, and ropes. Build climbing frames, balance games. Make some places wild. Give kids places to go where they can be risky. Skate parks, ramps, bike tracks. When you build housing estates, build in green space. When you have empty town centre buildings, make a youth club. Give organisations that allow youth to explore, the space, time and money, to do it. Make roads safer. Introduce better local speed limits, so kids can bike. Make bike lanes, run road safety courses. Ah, I see. All these things, the parks, the adventure playgrounds, the clubs, these are the things that are gone, or going. These are the things the Councils have been given carte blanche to cut. The playing fields are sold. The youth clubs all gone. Parks? In some areas now you have to pay, others, they are gone, too much maintenence. Or the land is worth more.  I have been bamboozled. Briefly, I thought I may agree with Gove. But now I see that it's a sop. Bigging up risk at school, because all the facilities for risk out of school, have gone, or are going. He almost had me there.

For locals: If you have noticed any loss of upkeep in your park, please contact me.

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