A Resources special: Why take risks? Feel the fear and do it anyway
Youthful pastimes are rarely without risk, argues A. W. Purdue, and keeping children from adventure may do more harm than good
There is a growing consensus that children need to take risks. But a modern obsession with protecting the young from danger is resulting in a fat (let’s use the controversial Anglo-Saxon word) and unhealthy generation that is not allowed to walk or cycle to school or often even play outside the home.
Indeed, children are being cut off from their natural environment and many are not even permitted to climb trees. They are leading increasingly sedentary lives, according to a report published in September by the National Trust, which went on to urge parents to give children wellies and raincoats and let them build dens, make mud pies and hunt for bugs.
But it is ever more difficult for teachers - routinely expected to tick the boxes of health and safety rules - to follow this advice. At the same time, a US-style compensation culture is growing, which is making schools more and more risk-averse. Children are the victims. One school in Swindon was recently reported to be demanding that parents have Criminal Records Bureau checks before they were allowed to watch their own children playing sport. After a protest, the school changed its policy.
The children’s adventure stories of the past would not be credible today: the Swallows and Amazons would never be allowed to embark unsupervised in their small boats; the Famous Five would not be permitted to set out on their camping and hiking adventures. All would be safely tucked up at home playing video games, with the exception of Timmy the dog.
It is worth remembering, however, that we may have a romantic view of childhoods past. For centuries, most children experienced rather too much danger, and some historians have argued that the very concept of childhood did not emerge until the 18th and 19th centuries. Even then it only applied to the more prosperous sections of society. Most children were treated as young adults and were put to work in the home or in the fields as soon as they were strong enough.
Few of us would yearn for a return to the childhood of many in the early 19th century: there were risks aplenty in climbing chimneys, manning keelboats or exercising nimble fingers amid the dangerous machinery of cotton mills. Yet, from exhibiting too little concern for the safety of the young, we have probably gone too far and made a fetish of it, one that restricts and impedes development.
By the early 20th century, children were prevented by law from engaging in most forms of adult employment and were receiving some form of full-time education. Many of the risks intrinsic to childhood a hundred years previously had been banished. Yet children were not constantly supervised or protected in their leisure and play. A glance at children’s comics reveals the rich and boisterous leisure life taken for granted by working- class children. Even at school, the games and interactions of the playground, much of which would be seen as too rough or dangerous today, were at most lightly controlled.
In many ways, the greater part of the 20th century was a halcyon period, in which care for young people did not mean forbidding them to take the inevitable risks associated with freedom and adventure. From the 1920s, state schools began to broadened the curriculum and, like independent schools, provided sporting activities, educational excursions and field studies. A society obsessed with the avoidance of risk threatens the freedoms experienced by past generations.
The charge of depriving the young of a proper youth should be laid at the door of many, including over-anxious parents who, believing that the world is increasingly dangerous, refuse to allow their offspring the freedom they themselves enjoyed; the media, which exaggerates the danger; and the government and local authorities, which hope to abolish risk with heavy handed “health and safety” legislation. Of course the number of cars on the road has increased and the return home from some inner-city schools presents other dangers, but the fear that muggers and paedophiles lurk on every corner is exaggerated. All of this does, however, put schools on the front line. Yet have educationalists succumbed too easily to moral panic and fears of criticism?
The teachers or youth leaders who wish to give their charges the experience of outdoor activities, field studies, trips abroad, visits to ruined castles or even standard sports are faced with a daunting list of problems. A risk assessment exercise will reveal many potential risks. But it can’t identify them all.
To force health and safety regulations on parents planning a day out with their family would be to create a super-nanny society, and when a child comes to harm on a family outing there is usually sympathy for the parents. But those in loco parentis face a different reaction, and after an accident or tragedy on a school excursion the first question asked is: “Who was at fault?” The same newspapers whose columnists complain about the absence of risk in childhood are the most assiduous in the search for a culprit, while a litigious culture often sees the matter end in inquiries or in court.
But is a risk-free playground little more than an unstimulating cage? Surely an outdoor sports excursion that is so safe as to deny any risk removes the point of the exercise. Publications such as the The Dangerous Book For Boys and The Daring Book For Girls show that childhood and adolescence without experiences that involve some danger are impoverished and a poor preparation for adult life. But where to draw the line, and how to find a balance? Children and teenagers, indeed everyone, need to take risks. And precautions must be taken to limit the dangers.
But it must also be accepted that among thousands of successful adventurous experiences, there will be accidents and occasionally deaths - something that is easier to accept in theory than in the event.
A. W. Purdue is visiting professor of history at Northumbria University
Key stage 1: Offsite made easy
If you want to organise a field trip, welshy’s risk assessment template will help you to do it safely. bit.ly/OffsiteRisk
Key stage 2: Crossing safely
EdComs has shared a useful guide to teaching road safety in primary schools. bit.ly/CrossSafely
Key stage 3: Knowing the risk
Encourage pupils to identify risks in tafkam’s lesson on assessing dangers. bit.ly/StudentsRisks
Key stage 4: Show me the money
Taking financial risks can be profitable or a quick route to bankruptcy. Help pupils to understand money matters using Personal Finance Education Group’s risk resource. bit.ly/MoneyRisks
Key stage 5: Safety at work
Prepare students for the workplace using barney66’s presentation on minimising risk at work. bit.ly/SafeAtWork.
Photo credit: Getty