My son-in-law in Auckland sent me a link this morning to an article in the Canadian National Post about a school in Auckland that has made some significant moves to trust children to find their own levels of risk. Actually, this is what health and safety is about – the management of risk. It is not about keeping children from harm so much as it is about teaching them to manage the limits of what they themselves consider safe. Norwegian practitioners often have told me that children will find their own safe height in a tree, and rarely exceed that. Children quickly learn about the boundaries in their lives and do not often exceed them. A commonly quoted figure that has been bandied about is that children’s “range of roaming” is about 90% diminished from that in the 1970s. This, we commonly think, has to do with the media’s willingness to scare parents about risks in order to sell newspapers. I suspect it is more about cars – both their greater prevalence and the willingness of parents to transport children in them, the amount we cram into our lives because we can get places more by car, and because the things are more numerous and faster. I may well be wrong, but as a parent I worried a lot more about cars than I ever did about strangers. People are generally helpful to children, especially if addressed politely.
The school in Auckland is called Swanson School, and they have been trialling (a weird word for actually doing less) an approach where teachers stop telling children to stop things, and let them discover boundaries for themselves. This seems radical, but it should be the easiest and most natural thing in the world. Here is the viewpoint of the principal, Bruce McLachlan:
It had been mere months since the gregarious principal threw out the rulebook on the playground of concrete and mud, dotted with tall trees and hidden corners; just weeks since he had stopped reprimanding students who whipped around on their scooters or wielded sticks in play sword fights. He knew children might get hurt, and that was exactly the point — perhaps if they were freed from the “cotton-wool” in which their 21st century parents had them swaddled, his students may develop some resilience, use their imaginations, solve problems on their own. The parent sat down, stone-faced, across from the principal.
“‘My son broke his arm in the playground, and I just want to make sure…” he began.
“And I’m thinking ‘Oh my God, what’s going to happen?’” Mr. McLachlan recalled, sitting in his “fishbowl” of an office one hot Friday afternoon last month.
The parent continued: “I just wanted to make sure you don’t change this play environment, because kids break their arms.”
Mr. McLachlan took the unexpected vote of confidence as a further sign that his educational-play experiment was working: Fewer children were getting hurt on the playground. Students focused better in class. There was also less bullying, less tattling. Incidents of vandalism had dropped off.
It was of course, not the parents who needed re-training in a more relaxed attitude, but the staff, who, like teachers everywhere are used to being wedded to a rule book that if not adhered to causes them to feel threatened. And this is not a criticism; just the way it is.
Yes, some property and a few children are going to get into difficulties, but that is not a particularly good reason to stop. I can already imagine the trees that might suffer through being climbed before they are are big enough to carry an eight year old. But that is a different issue – an issue of caring for our land – than the one of setting children free to explore.