“If you can’t get up there on your own you won’t be able to get down, so I can’t lift you up. You will have to wait until you are bigger, like me.’
‘No logs above your head.’
‘That’s not safe, look, the plank needs to be tied on, like this, with a proper knot.’
‘Put it on top of this one, carefully- not too high or it might fall off.’
During the summer term the soon-to-be sun-children have turned into health and safety experts, standing with hands on hips as they organise games or co-ordinate building work. Pointing, shaking their heads, you can almost hear a sharp intake of breath as they assess the structures.
But there are no clipboards (yet!) no hi-vis jackets or hard hats. They are passing on their experiences of assessing and managing risk in kindergarten to the younger children, getting ready to step into the safety boots vacated by the sun children in a few weeks, when they have left us for school, trying them on for size and marching round in them. And the sun children watch them carefully, but from a distance, making sure they have got it right, intervening when necessary.
Sometimes the children will ask us ‘Is it too high? Is it safe?’ and we will circle round with them, inspecting and checking, while they work out for themselves that the clothes rack is less likely to fall over if it is opened to a wider angle, the tent will not fall down if it has chairs butted against the sides to shore it up.
We all know that we don’t run with scissors, or sharp sticks, we hold the knife like this when whittle, are careful with sharp needles, know how not to prick our fingers on spindles, and new-comers soon find out.
We don’t have rubberised areas to fall on, but we do have a good supply of plasters, there are no wood chips under our hanging bars to break a fall, but we all hold on with our two hands. We tell the teacher if we find glass or other sharp objects in the field, and they go in a special box.
We don’t talk about ‘risks’ with the children, but encourage them to take responsibility for themselves, for each other, their work and their play in a way that provides the challenges- physical and mental, to make choices, take control, learn to regulate themselves. They set their own challenges too- obstacle courses are popular at the moment, with the children working out out the angles that the planks need to be at- so that they don’t snap when jumped on, and so we don’t get ‘MASSIVE SPLINTERS’ in our feet .
A mixed age group such as ours is an excellent place in which to learn to manage risks, as there is always somebody who knows what to do, somebody who wants to push the boundaries, somebody who just wants to stay safe- to watch (until they are ready to join in), will ask the teacher if it is ok and tell us that a child is up too high. And there are lots of people who want to work together to make sure we are all safe. We usually find that these stances have a degree of fluidity- that children often start off as ‘risk adverse’, and progress through the other positions as they gain skills and experience, becoming more confident in their own abilities, and internalising a ‘parental voice’. A voice that will become their own and guide them as they navigate their way through life.
Our walk to school takes us past a small, safe, rubberised, park, with a couple of low swings and a wooden truck for climbing on and sitting in. The trees are safely fenced off, adults always close enough to touch the children, to catch them if they fall, so they don’t fall, don’t think about falling, don’t know the risk.
Today I was pleased to see a boy of about 10 in one of the trees- well, part of him was in the tree- his feet were wedged in a cleft, and his body stretched out, like a bridge, as he clutched a lamp post, shouting for his mother to help him. My son looked at him, shook his head slowly and sagely, drew in his breath- sharply, and said ‘That wouldn’t happen at school, we’re all specially trained in climbing trees.’
by Jacqui Armour