If we reflect on how we think about risk in our day-to-day lives, many would agree that we tend to focus too much on the negatives – the what ifs, the worst case scenarios, the horror stories – and not enough on the positives. We know that nothing grabs our attention quite like fear. (So does the media, of course.) This bias makes it very hard for us to take a balanced approach to risk. Here’s one reason why.
When things go wrong – an accident or a crime – it is easy to see. It is also easy to count. And we do count them – in accident statistics, incident reports and all the rest. When things go right – say a child climbs to the top of a climbing frame – it can be harder to see, and even harder to count.
Unless we pay more attention to the positives, we will always be overly influenced by bad news stories. So how can we make the upside of risk more visible?
One thing we can do is simply to become more aware of those moments of ordinary magic in our lives, when children – or for that matter adults – get the chance to experience, to explore, to have everyday adventures and to enjoy a taste of freedom.
Sharon Mehan, Early Childhood Adviser of C & K and one of the people responsible for getting me out to Australia for a month-long working visit, recently emailed me with a fine example of just such a moment. Sharon explained that she often takes her young children down to a nearby beach. She takes up the story:
“The kids and I were sitting up the back of the beach in the shade, making sandcastle homes for the crabs. Three young boys (aged about eight or nine years of age) raced past us, stripped off their shirts and dumped their towels where they lay, as they raced each other to see who could be first in the water. The waves were reasonably deep, and they splashed about just on the wave break for about 45 minutes.
“They didn’t have adult supervision and they stuck together the whole time. As I played with my kids I kept an eye out for them to make sure they didn’t get into trouble. Then I started to notice other adults doing the same thing.
“I saw three elderly ladies keep a watch out as they walked along the beach together. I saw another mum with young kids do the same thing. And I saw a dad swimming with his two sons look across for them every now and again, especially after a set of big waves.
“What struck me was that there was a whole community of complete strangers supervising these boys. And it really was not an unusual thing.
“The boys were totally oblivious. To them the only thing that consumed them was what they were experiencing. One of the three boys was more nervous than the other two in the water, so he didn’t go out very deep. I watched his friends keep an eye on him too.
“What did I glean from having watched the boys that afternoon? Two things. First, children still love being outside in nature. Natural environments like the seaside still give children the chance to experience powerful, exhilerating emotions and have a taste of freedom and camaraderie. Second, the kindness of strangers and sense of community is alive and well. You just have to take the time to look for it.”
Like Sharon, I take two things from this story. The first is, just as she says, the value of trust and simple acts of kindness, which are often the key to creating the possibility of outdoor play or exploration. The second is that, if we only paid more attention to these moments – if we could make them visible, and add them up – then we would truly appreciate how much they contribute to our lives. We would also build up a powerful antidote to fear mongering and bad news – including all the stories that go ‘people today just don’t care about kids they don’t know any more’.
I’m inviting you to join me in making such moments more visible. What stories of ordinary magic and everyday adventures do you have to share?
Acknowledgements: My thinking on the asymmetry of risk draws on the work of my long-time collaborator Prof David Ball. David, Bernard Spiegal and I co-wrote Managing Risk in Play Provision: Implementation Guide – the idea is explored on p.49. Thanks to Sharon Mehan for telling me her story, and for allowing me to share it. Thanks also to artist and friend Jane Millar for allowing me to use her piece ‘Witness Board’ to accompany this post. Jane is curating Curious, a site-specific art trail in West Norwood Cemetary, South London, from June 22 to July 20.