Risk benefit assessment in my own backyard (Part 2)

Jozef toasting a marshmallowThe good news: the two fire-making sessions went very well. I felt that all the children engaged positively with the activities pretty much throughout. Six or seven parents emailed me afterwards to say how much their child enjoyed the evening. I don’t think they were just being polite. One pioneer apparently told their mum the session was ‘awesome’ – I guess praise doesn’t come much higher than that!

I am being neither modest nor immodest when I say that this level of engagement is not common, in my experience. As any Woodcraft Folk volunteer will tell you, pioneer groups are the hardest to run. They span the full spread of childhood personalities, from shy wallflowers to boisterous, hormonal near-teenagers.

The other good news: no injuries or adverse incidents, apart from a few cases of coughing, spluttering and teary eyes from the smoke. (Note to self: have cups of water handy next time.) One of the fire steels fell apart, but luckily we had a spare, and thanks to some super glue it is now as good as new.

Of course, we wouldn’t do activities like these if we were not confident that the risks would be outweighed by the benefits, as Martin Maudsley pointed out in his comment on Part 1 of this post. Nonetheless I am pleased to say that this confidence was borne out. On the basis of this sample size of 27, few urban children have ever tried to conjure up a fire from scratch (pardon the pun) even in comparatively outdoorsy families – but when they do, surprise surprise, they lap up the experience.

I am interested in Martin’s suggestion that risk benefit assessment is something that could or should be carried out with the group. At first this seems like an unconditionally good idea. On balance I think it probably is, and will try it next time. My only doubt is that perhaps doing this may switch on children’s ‘risk antennae’ to such a degree that their natural responses are inhibited. What do you think – is there a danger that getting children to do risk benefit assessments will lead them to be over-cautious? Or is it a great way to develop their own risk management skills?

11 responses to “Risk benefit assessment in my own backyard (Part 2)

  1. Please don’t stop! The woreld needs more common sense, more activitiers and more enchantment about the possibilities life has top offer. Long live dead X-boxes and aother assorted gadgetry. Children need to discover that their brain and their imagination are worth more than this “programmed” paraphenalia.

  2. PS: I should learn how to type better. . . . . .

  3. Great blog Tim! I feel that children should most certainly be part of the assessment of risk and benefits – they should be consulted on all matters that affect them. I go through this process with children from as young as 2 years old and find that they are very capable and competent and able to manage their own risk in an informed manner through using this approach.

  4. I suspect formal risk/benefit assessment may be a bit like a sharp knife… something where you’d want to make an individual assessment before putting it in to a child’s hands.
    It could mis-fire in both directions (too much or too little caution) but my thought is that with suitable guidance it ought to be a good idea (a bit like the sharp knife again). it is, of course, the case that children are risk managing any time they cross the road, climb a tree etc., so showing them a more formal approach might well hone existing skills.

  5. I agree with Niki – children should definitely be part of risk benefit assessment. Their lives are commonly so sanitised of risk that they are denied any exposure to it – which in itself makes them more ‘at risk’ in so-called unmanaged situations (in other words, real life).

    Whatever happened to those play parks planned for the New Millennium, that were going to be designed with deliberate elements of risk incorporated into them? It’s a crazy world that we should even have been thinking along those lines, yet seemingly necessary until children are once more given the freedom and opportunity to play and explore – and have the opportunity to weigh up risks – like we did when I was a child.

  6. “Or is it a great way to develop their own risk management skills?”

    I should think that if you want people to learn how to judge risks, it must be a good idea to teach them how to.

  7. Bernard, Peter, Niki, Gilly, ad – thanks for the comments. Re: involving kids in RBA – I’m mulling over it, and think it’s complicated. I like your ‘sharp knife’ metaphor Peter. Niki – my worries are linked in my mind with a point you made in a recent piece of yours, where you cautioned against the impulse to give children at play a running commentary/interrogation on their activities (I can’t find it now otherwise I’d add the link).
    ad – a response: people learn lots of things – their first language, for instance – simply through experience, without being taught. Could the same be true of many types of risk? If so, then trying to teach children may even be counterproductive, as it may undermine their own sense of agency and competence. Like I said: it’s complicated.
    Gilly – if you’re in the UK, there may be some new, adventurous play spaces in your neighbourhood – check Play England’s photostream.

    • Dear Tim et al, I think it is all a question of balance. Yes, children should be guided, taught, mentored – but to what extent? Today’s adult involvement in children often appears to be “self” motivated (as in : if I don’t do this with dispatch and intensity I wil be seen as a bad parent). I see very little adult involvement today which is not hovering or even downright paranoid. God forbid that our children would learn something worthwhile on their own. Wouldn’t that mean, (gulp) that they need us less than we think?.

  8. Hi Tim et al, thanks for the comments. it comes down to respecting and trusting that children are capable and competent little individuals who don’t NEED adults to be TEACHING and DIRECTING all the time. In the blog you mentioned Tim, http://preciouschildhood.blogspot.com/ , there is a case study where children had an adult fear transferred to them but through sensitive interaction and support they were able to reassess, weigh up the benefits of the activity (playing with a dead jellyfish) against the risk (possible sting) and then make their own decision. The learning from this opportunity needs to be seen as a benefit. I feel that the role of the adult is only to raise awareness of hazards that children might not be able to identify or might not realise the severity of but still allow children to work things out for themselves. If we don’t allow children to continue to do this from a very early age they will not be able to self risk assess as they get older with possibly disastrous consequences. Even a baby just starting to walk is able to self risk assess and some babies are naturally more cautious just as some toddlers and adults are….nothing wrong with that either. I vote for a common sense approach to risk!

  9. Hi Tim, great to get feedback from how the session went and your thoughts on the role of RBA in a real experiential play session. My comments on involving children in the RBA were meant to suggest that they engage with the process and contribute directly to the documentation, rather than necessarily undertake the assessment themselves. In particular, when balancing benefit versus risk, it’s really helpful to have children’s quotes/reponses on why they want to do it and what they got out of it; i.e. if these are numerous and compelling then we can accept bigger risks (alongside contingencies). The other side of the equation, which I have learnt from personally, is where we as adults are driven to provide something for children because WE think it’s important rather than the kids wanted/asked for it themselves. I once set up a fixed rope course across a shallow river but with slippy rocks, I balanced my view of the benefits and risks, but in practice the first two children fell in, and we had to stop. On reflection it wasn’t something the children were demanding, and actually they were more cautious than I realised which affected their behaviour, i.e in this case by involving the children more I should have realised the risks didn’t outweigh the benefits.

    The other aspect to involving children is that some risks are very apparent to children, eg heat from the fire, risk of burning fingers etc. Others are much less apparent to children, eg hazardous chemicals, or that burning plastic sticks to skin. So I think that’s where we as adults need to focus our experience/knowledge/skills alongside children’s contributions to the RBA process.

    Wild wishes, Martin

  10. Well at least someone is considerate on risk assessment because most of us never even think about it.

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