Too Risky??

I have just read an interesting post by Tara Cain ‘Wringing Every Last Drop Out of School. In it she describes her frustration at the restrictions that now abound the primary school and the playground specifically. She mentions how the list of banned things is growing ever longer with such things as football swap cards, hand stands & cartwheels.She (& many of those who left comments ) feel very sad and cross that these simple activities are now being stopped, many in the name of Health & Safety.
It has become a really difficult position for schools to take over recent years. It is primarily due to the proliferation of challenges that are now quite common place in this increasingly ‘blame society’ when what was previously ‘an accident’ happens.
As a head teacher I was fortunate to have a large playground. Unfortunately it sloped rather badly. Although the ‘before-school’ game of football was at the top, the ball had a habit of finding its way to the bottom where parents would stand chatting possibly with pushchairs. Imagine the response from some parents if the ball made contact (or even possible contact) with them?
Swap cards are great when everyone knows the rules and abides by them. However, they can cause all manner of arguments which can be taken out of school then brought back in magnified into almost turf war! I have had parents coming in demanding to see me about the squabble that has occurred over these cards and asking for children to be expelled!
Of course the school does have a responsibility to help children learn to play in an appropriate way. We are trying to develop citizens of the future and they need to understand that compromise, fair play and keeping to the rules are really important. For schools this translates into resources.
Incidents that start in the playground before school can rumble on all day. Teachers are expected to get on with teaching as soon as children come in. There are some parents for instance, who would object to learning time being taken up by two children who have had a falling out in the playground.
Having someone supervising the playground is one way forward. However, that is again a resource situation. Teachers do take it in turns to supervise the playground but they do have their classrooms to prepare and lessons to get ready. In some situations, the new teachers do not fair well in these early morning exchanges and that can have a detrimental effect on their teaching day. An additional body such as a learning mentor is an ideal substitute on the playground but unfortunately with budget cuts, this is one role that some schools are considering removing.
The result of all this is that many incidents end up at the head teacher’s door. Like class teachers they do have a great deal to do each day and some of these occurrences can take a great deal of time to get to the bottom of.
So sadly schools have almost reverted to the lowest common denominator and consider where are the complaints going to come from? If parents are going to be upset and not accept ‘it was an accident’, schools will do what they can to prevent the accident.
I know many of the commenters on Tara’s post felt that schools were taking things too far but maybe those writers are the exceptional few. Maybe it is about the different expectations of parents not only to the school but to some of their peers. For example not all parents would be happy for girls’ pants to be seen when they are doing hand stands etc. Schools are in a very difficult situation where they are expected to keep all the people happy all of the time and as we know that is impossible. By banning these activities schools are taking the approach that time will not be wasted on these concerns but on teaching and learning for all the children.
It is sad and I feel really sorry for the children who may miss out on these experiences but perhaps we need to look at parental responsibilities as well. Perhaps too many children arrive at school expecting to always get what they want and being right. Perhaps too many parents view school as a free child minding service and therefore are not interested in the learning in the classroom  but  will make a huge fuss over playground antics.
I do not know what the answer is. School s and parents want to have a relationship that is built on understanding and support for children. ‘The Open Door’ is a much used but very important aspect for that relationship. So let’s see what we could come up with.
I know – if the school undertook a survey asking if parents would support the maxim that (within reason) ‘accidents and squabbles do happen’ would you sign up to it?

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  • Richard Palmer

    Oh dear. Education has rather stigmatised getting things wrong and quite the opposite should be true. We have Academies beign built without playgrounds; parents not being able to attend sportsdays in case other children should encounter a ‘stranger’, etc. More regulation, more observation, more intereference = less risk, less education and less real learning. Shmae. At least I’m able to do what is right for childrens developement and let ’em play conkers, netball, tree climbing, footie, etc, etc.

  • Tara

    Hi Julia. Thanks so much for taking up this subject matter. 
    I think the main issue to come out of this for me on my blog (having heard what both parents and teachers have had to say in the comments) is the total lack of communication.
    We as parents have never been talked to or involved or consulted about any of these issues. It feels almost like if one person complains then that’s it, game over (literally). One dissenting voice has the power over all others.
    Yes, I too have seen swap cards turn into squabbles and arguments, but kids will squabble and argue over anything given half the chance (!) and they need to be taught in a safe, friendly environment that this is not acceptable. And I absolutely agree with Tim, that children need to take risks and to have the tools to learn how to overcome them. I think that is vital for their future in a world where, let’s face it, they’re going to be faced with it all the time.
    And also Erin’s comment about parents wanting their child’s schooldays to be perfect really resonates with me. Mine wasn’t. I loved school, but I had quite a tough time. But actually it’s made me who I am now. 
    Really emotive stuff. And as to your final question, yes I would sign up to it. My 8 year old has been in a couple of minor incidents and we’ve talked about it when he got home and I asked him how he thought he should deal with it. Then he went and did just that and all was fine. It’s about empowering our children to resolve difficulties they encounter on their own 

    • Anonymous

      You are so right about empowering children Tara and for many parents that seems to translate into doing everything for them and not allowing any slips or falls. It is really interesting how communication is often at the core of many of these topics. Schools set out to let parents know about things (usually about learning & the curriculum) but are very nervous of asking for opinions.
      Thank you so much for linking this from your blog and we must do this again!

  • What if our children grow up too fast having been protected from playground misfortune?
    I look back on my own primary school days with great affection. We had such a great time and the parts I remember are the trips, visits and playtimes. These are all parts of school life that are currently under great strain from health and safety constraints and pressure from parents to run unrealistically smoothly- real life is not smooth going especially with children so school life is unlikely to be either.
    School children need to learn how to play together, negotiate, make amends and form relationships. It’s clear to me how these skills transfer themselves to adult life- what really bothers me is that parents don’t seem to see it. They want their children to have perfect days at school- we all accept that we learn more from our mistakes than from our successes- surely the same can be said about falling out with another pupil over cards or stickers. If they are not given the opportunity to deal with this kind of thing at an early age then they will likely struggle later on in life. Couple this with an age in which we are concerned about dangers of the internet and the over sexualisation of children- inappropriate clothing, influences from the media and so on and we are really heading for trouble- vulnerable young people who haven’t learned to stand up for themselves wearing adult clothing and wanting to be WAGs! It seems to me that in one area we are protecting our young ones from confrontation (I’m thinking that the playground is a good place to learn how to cope interacting with all- from best friends to bullies.) whist in another we are willing them to grow up too fast. I think parents should be willing to step back a bit and encourage children to resolve playground issues themselves; ask them… What are the school rules? What solutions are there? How could you deal with this differently in the future? And explain that sometimes they will feel upset and sometimes they will have cuts and grazes- but that’s OK. I’m certain that this would be a better approach for the child as a whole- rather than just what would me them happy right at this moment. No one likes to see their children upset but it is important that we allow our children to problem solve themselves.
    I hate the ‘blame society’ and am beginning to see it as something of a worry for future generations. It seems to me that the value of learning a lesson from accidents has been totally lost to the financial value of making a claim- something that could prove much more dangerous than the accident in the first place!
    Wow… you’ve really got me thinking now!
    Erin Xx

    • Anonymous

      Erin – you are a breath of fresh air. I agree with everything you have said & like you am really worried about where it is leading. I would have loved to have had a parent come in to see me to complain that their child had not made enough progress in their learning. Sadly this never happened. See you again I hope!

  • HorwichHead

    I wonder if we think ahead enough sometimes, to avoid problems happening in the first place? How many schools can/ do/ would have a room indoors where those who often find playtime stressful and difficult could take themselves off?

    • Anonymous

      I was speaking with a friend who is also a retired head & she mentioned providing dressing up things as well as crayons etc as different playtimes activities. I suppose there is always that problem of supervision with not enough bodies around. By putting the children all in the same place it can seem the best use of resources but as we know it can lead to real tensions. Many thanks for visiting!

  • Anonymous

    Really interesting post Julia.  I’m not sure what the answer is here.  I’m trying to think about it both from an educator’s point of view and from a parent’s point of view.  I agree that chidlren need the opportunity for free play and to learn valuable lessons from social interactions, good and bad.  But I’d also argue that it’s important that they arrive at class ready and willing to learn and not unwilling to work together due to playground squabbles.  
    Maybe the deal that needs to be struck here is one with the children.  Not the parents.  Maybe the children need to agree to leave their squabbles in the playground, and work together in class… though that is probably a rather unrealistic expectation I fear!

    • Anonymous

      If we could get the children to sort it – in the words of Del Boy – we’d be millionaires! Great to see you hear Pooky!

  • As someone who promotes a more balanced approach to risk I sympathise with the position of teachers and heads. I regularly give talks to educators and my key message is: get clear about your values and what you think matters for your children. If – as I hope – you think it’s important for children to learn how to get along, solve problems and overcome challenges, and that they do this in part through their free play, then you need to give children the freedom to take some risks. They may make mistakes – that’s part of the learning (remember your own childhood). Children’s lives are more constrained today, so freedom in the playground is more important than ever. The other barriers mentioned here – the blame culture, anxious parents – can be overcome, *if* you have the right vision. By the way research from Play England last year showed that 3/4 of parents felt that health & safety concerns had too big an effect on school playground activities. The tide is turning!
    My website has more on this topic.

  • Ross Mannell

    The issues raised here seem to be global. Your article applies just as easily in Australian schools as in the UK. Too many times I’ve had to deal with playground issues in the classroom when we should be dealing with lesson work.

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