Childhood and risk: what messages would you give to the Palace?

I have been invited to Buckingham Palace in November, to discuss with the Duke of Edinburgh how to promote a more balanced approach to risk and adventure in children’s lives. And I’m asking for your help in deciding what to say to him.

Child and man next to campfireThe meeting has been organised by the Campaign for Adventure, a group that was launched by Prince Philip ten years ago. Since then the debate around risk, adventure and childhood has moved on enormously, and the climate has changed significantly for the better. At the top, Government has set in train reviews of legislation and regulations, and has cut bureaucracy. As I have said before, my own  ‘industry’, the play sector, has for more than a decade led the way in building the arguments for a more balanced, thoughtful approach, and in producing the practical guidance to underpin it. Managers and workers in education, childcare and elsewhere are more prepared to add their voices to the call for proportion.

But I believe there is much more work to do. The regulatory framework is still not fit for purpose, and regulatory bodies are failing to back up supportive statements with concrete action. Regulators, politicians and the media are still confused. They bemoan a so-called ‘cotton wool kid’ culture. Yet too often, the response to rare tragedies is to try to find someone to blame – a tendency that is bound to leave front-line workers anxious and fearful. Managers are still under great pressure to sort out their procedures and paperwork, often at the expense of sound, balanced decision-making.

Northampton elevator tower

I am honoured to have been asked to the meeting, and I am looking forward to joining others – including leading figures from the education and outdoor sectors, politicians and journalists – to press for more progress. Why not help me, by taking an ‘elevator test’ and sharing the results in the comments below? Imagine you are in an elevator with Prince Philip. What would you tell him still needs to be done?

(Thanks to John Grey Turner for use of this image of Northampton lift test tower – from flickr.)

23 responses to “Childhood and risk: what messages would you give to the Palace?

  1. Dear Tim,

    Re: Buckingham Palace in November, to discuss with the Duke of Edinburgh.


    The more adventurous and curious children are given a chance to be, the more innovative and “safe” they actually become – not because they fall and fail and stop being daring, but safer because they more bravely become accustomed to reading, analysing, summarizing and dealing with what is or is not dangerous. They learn to handle risk intelligently rather than fearfully – and this, to achieve the one thing we all want for our children: to live life wonderfully and wondrously.

    (An ill accomplished child is often a submissive child, afraid of failing and fearful of the unknown – incapable of saying a resounding “YES” to life.) Mental health is as important as physical health – the 2 go hand in hand.

    And with adventure, life not only becomes bearable it becomes intoxicating.

    Hope this is of some assistance in your discussions.



  2. As a child…
    Give me priority over cars.
    Teach me to deal with real risk (eg: teach me to swim) rather than have me live in fear of less likely tragedies (eg: abduction).
    Welcome me in society so I meet different people with different experiences.
    More praise, less blame. For everyone.
    Learning and playing is fun; adults should be let in on this secret.

  3. Here here to the above- well said, Bernard.

    I think we have to look at the unmanning of boys, too; today so many small boys see more of female childcare workers than they do of their fathers, and so the opportunities for vital rough-and-tumble play are vastly limited. If we encourage more men into childcare, I think we will get a more balanced approach to risk.

  4. Bernard, Helen, Annie – thanks for your comments. “To live life wonderfully and wondrously” – absolutely. Learning and playing is fun. We adults are prone to forget how much fun, and how it involves taking risks, pushing at boundaries, and engaging with uncertainty. Annie – early educators tell me there’s a different energy when men are in their setting, and I’m sure that is right.

  5. I once heard that people respond best to 3 types of information based on books:
    The Guinness Book of Records – stats and facts;
    The Qu’ran or Bible – moral & ethical argument;
    This is Your Life – An opinion from a famous or respected person.

    So I guess it’s as much about how you are going to present what you say as much as what you say. In your elevator, you’ll have time for these 3. Good luck.

    I’d be more interested in knowing what he can do in his capacity to give children childhoods to treasure.

    • Juliet – that tripartite thing is from Aristotle! He talked of emotion, argument and character. Charlotte Higgins wrote about this, in a nice Guardian piece on effective public speaking a few years ago. Thanks for reminding me of it.

  6. Heather Hutchings

    The media don’t help – by misreporting, exaggerating risks and feeding into the blame culture. As a grandparent, I am criticised for allowing kids to climb, run, jump and play football in the park – why! I am strict about holding hands and paying attention when crossing the road though. Please let them get bored sometimes – don’t keep them entertained all day long and don’t use clubs, computers, games and TV’s as childcare! Boredom brings creativity so spend time outside drawing, painting reading too.

    • Heather – I so agree. I think grandparents have a valuable perspective on this topic – you’ve not only got your own childhood memories, but also the memories of your experiences of childrearing. I wish more grandparents would stand up and speak up – like you have – for a more free-range childhood.

  7. Heather Hutchings

    I know how my four children turned out as adults (despite a less than ideal childhood – money problems and losing their father to leaukemia) as a result of much unsupervised outside play. They are happy, confident, stable and sociable. Two are film animation compositors, one a teacher (these three have worked in many countries) and one a charity administrator/accountant and mother of two. They were given a lot of freedom, few rules, never ‘pushed’ academically or criticised much. I am now so proud of them all!

    • Thanks for this Heather. Sounds like your family has resilience in spades. Of course the childhood you describe was near-universal just a generation or two ago. We need to tap into that collective memory, while it still has power and currency.

  8. Heather Hutchings

    When I started school (1959) my father took me on the first day (‘There’s the door, in you go’) after that my sister – a whole sixteen months older than me. Mother was in bed, having just given birth to my brother. So a five and six year old went just over a mile along the green and across the high road. Cars would stop and wave us across – most children took themselves. Often I could hardly see when I got there (or back home) due to hay fever so we’d hold hands.
    When my two boys started school in the 1980’s I took and collected them until they were seven – a five minute walk and not expecting the older to collect the younger. Then, about the same routine with the two girls in the nineties – although by then I felt I was in the minority letting them go so young.
    Now I take my grandson it is usual to only allow them to go alone in the last year, aged ten – yes it’s changed but they do so want to be like their friends! It makes no sense though – we are round the corner from the school!

  9. I am fascinated by this subject. I work with young children and know first hand how much they benefit from being able to take risk and challenge in their play. I also remember how different my own childhood was in comparision to my children’s experiences and it is very sad that children are so much more limited in what they are allowed to do.
    I would like to see proper training for early years practitioners on the benefits of risky play. I want it to be seen as important as learning to read and write.
    Children need to be given the opportunity to take risks or they end up not being able to cope with life. I am passionate about this- so much so that I am planning on doing my dissertation on this very subject.

    • Thanks for this Michelle – I agree that it is crucial to support practitioners in taking a balanced approach. The Government is consulting on the Early Years Foundation Stage right now. Perhaps you and I should both respond, making this point? O – and good luck with your dissertation!

  10. Hi Tim,
    I think Bernard covered `where we are now’ beautifully so I wont repeat any of what he said. I suppose if you are asked about the past and where it all started you could be talking for an hour or more but hopefully you’ll be able to discuss the main points – the H&S vacuum filled by overzealous, unskilled people after HASAWA74 gave them a bit of authority over workplaces (but not play), the slow drift into risk aversion and so on.
    As we both know, communication/awareness, play design and RBA training will all have to be improved over the decade ahead and the more good examples there are around the country the better for getting the message through.
    Interestingly, I saw an example yesterday of a country park with a fenced in play area, whilst a majority of the often very young children chose to climb a tree, play in the sand pit or kicked balls on the grass outside, where there was no fence. So the whole safety and dog fouling issue was negated by the children themselves. We have to create more social, playable community places and hopefully the message will slowly sink in that it is about family, friends, good playful opportunities and creativity (dare I say it – Big Society), and fencing and equipment is not the be all and end all of children’s play needs.

  11. Tell him about the chickens.

    • Err, the springy ones?? Help me out here, Michael!

      • O – you mean the free-range ones! (Just re-read your other comment).

      • Tim,
        The most effective one liner that I use when working with schools is that: The free range chicken that ends up on the the shelf in Sainsburys has more rights to time and space outside than our school children do.
        Free range chickens must have spent half of their lives outdoors, they must have minimum spacial requirements and they must have daily access to the outdoors. Schools are so risk averse they are limiting children’s access to some of the best and most accessible play opportunities available to them. Why do we put forward a moral argument that our food has a right to live outdoors but not our children?

        • Aha – there’s more on free-range chickens/childhood! I now have the background (see other comment on other page, unable to link to it like Tim does!) I like it even more; I will most definitely be using this in conservation/conversions!

  12. Heather Hutchings

    Spot on Michael
    In a simiar vein – dog welfare basics:

    1) must have a daily walk – ideally two or three.

    2) have to exercise first – before they can be expected to calmly focus on learning/training

    3) should be fed a well-balanced, appropriate diet to avoid health and behavioural problems.

    4) need a quiet, cosy and peaceful resting place and adequate opportunity to sleep.

    But, it seems, none of this applies to kids – why?

  13. Our children at the school i work in are regualarly taken out and allowed to explore the environment which surrounds the school. It was part and parcel of early years practise. This year we have extended it to the whole school and become a Forest School. We regularly kept the parents informed of the activities their children were taking part in. Use of tools, tree climbing , den building etc. The most resistance we came across and the highest complaint factor was not anything to do with this, but instead them getting dirty!We had notes saying, please excuse ‘ alfie’ from forest school as he does not have spare clothes. We invested in water suits, kept highlighting the impotance of the children not feeling inhibited and continued the progamme. Interestingly over the year the children’s enthusiasm and love of the being outside, taking risks has had the complete reverse effect. We now get notes saying, ‘ please allow alfie to do forest school in his uniform, i am happy to wash it tonight.’ or please can alfie borrow wellies to take part in the session today.’ We have had 6 broken arms, a broken collar bone and many cuts and sprains… the playground and not one accident in forest school. We need to trust these children, they can manage themselves and are powerful, influential little beings when allowed the chance to be.

  14. The meeting was yesterday. The general vibe was “we’ve turned a corner on risk and adventure, but there’s much more to do”. The Campaign for Adventure will post more detailed notes soon, which I will share. I have to say HRH was looking pretty sharp for his 90 years.

    • Dear Tim
      I have taken 4 groups of children of different ages into the woods today and witnessed everything from awe and wonder to self challenging activities . They laughed, ran, climbed, rolled, made dens, completed sculptures, used tools and worked happily both in groups and independently when they wanted to. I cannot put into words the amount of learning that went on, socially and emottionally and how much positive energy there was. No one was in fear of failing or said ‘ I can’t.’ There was not one injury, nettle sting or scraped knee. We need to trust children more. They know their limits
      , will test and challenge themsleves. If they do scrape there knee they are more than capable of picking themselves up and carrrying on.
      it felt wonderful to be a part of this experience today and if i felt it as a practitioner i can only begin to imagine the benefit it has on the children.

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