“Those rocks in that well are too dangerous.”

Here in Australia, I recently visited Bubup Nairm, City of Port Phillip’s newest family and children’s centre. Opened in April this year, it brings together a range of childcare, health and family support services in a state-of-the-art hub building with a $A 15m [£10 million, $US 14 million] price tag. It is an impressive place. But it has not had the easiest of starts. I was told that just a few weeks after it opened, a four-year-old child was hurt and ended up in hospital. She and another child had been handling some rocks in a stone well in the garden, and a rock slipped out of one child’s hands and fell on the other’s, breaking her finger.

Rocks in a wellNot surprisingly, the parents were very upset. They wanted the rocks removed. Immediately.

Centre coordinator Mel Edwards took a different view. She had seen how the children’s learning had been stimulated by the rocks. “For adults,” she says, “a rock is just a rock. But for children, a rock can be a new pet. It can be a loaf of bread. It can be a hill for pixies, or a piece of treasure to be coveted or bartered.” Children were drawn to touch, lift and play with the rocks, and the variation they found – the subtle differences in feel, weight, size, shape and colour – was a source of constant fascination.

So Mel stood her ground: the rocks had to stay. In her view, the accident was just that: an accident. Yes, the fact that one child’s hand was in the wrong place at the wrong time was unfortunate. But in and of themselves, the rocks were not dangerous. They were certainly no more hazardous than many other items that might be found in a nursery (or a home) – toys, chairs, books or pots or pans.

NQS coverThe centre’s management were initially nervous, but came around to back Mel’s stance. One thing that helped was the supportive material about risk in Australia’s National Quality Standard for early learning and childcare (published in October 2011). One statement says that educators should “plan learning environments with appropriate levels of challenge, where children are encouraged to explore, experiment and take appropriate risks in their learning” (element 1.2.2,  p.43).

It is not hard to see why the parents would have been upset. Not only did their child end up going from daycare to the local hospital. But also, from their perspective, the cause was something that was avoidable. After all, rocks are not exactly standard items in an early years setting. In these situations, it is almost inevitable that the parents will want to be told that their child’s pain could have been prevented. They will want to be reassured that ‘this will never happen again’.

Mel Edwards in front of the well

Mel by her well

Yet if we are to take a balanced, thoughtful approach to risk, we need to take a step back from the emotions that arise in the aftermath of painful events. Yes, the rocks did play a part in the injury. But let’s remind ourselves of a couple of facts. First, while broken fingers are no fun, the child has made a full recovery – as with almost all such injuries. Second, she (and the other children in the centre who heard about the incident) will have learnt to be more careful in future with holding and lifting the rocks – and also other weighty household objects. Mel argued that if we tried to remove all heavy items from children’s everyday lives, how would they ever realise that they need to take care when handling them?

Building a sound, balanced, thoughtful approach to risk is not easy. For it to work, the approach needs to be supported all the way up and down the chain of command: from front-line staff through managers, health and safety officers and politicians up to state and federal regulators. And of course, ultimately parents need to back the approach, and to understand its implications.

This chain of command is only as strong as its weakest link. This is why the statements from the NQS (and here in the UK, the statement on risk in play from the Health and Safety Executive) are so valuable: they provide a vital supportive view from the ‘higher-ups’.

The parents of the child in question struggled to accept the centre’s stance, though in the end they did. Parents do not all take the same view on safety (as I have noted before, in another post with an Aussie anecdote). Settings may have to accept that they will anger, upset, or even lose some parents, if they are to stand firm on their values and ethos. But it is worth remembering that even the parents of those children unlucky enough to get hurt sometimes come around to accepting that no-one was to blame – as I wrote in recounting a similar story from the UK.

So I think that Mel and the centre management were right to stand their ground. But decisions like this can be difficult. One of the reasons why risk-benefit assessment is so valuable is that it enables educators and service providers to weigh up the pros and cons in a considered way – without the shadow of a recent incident hanging over them – and where appropriate, to document their thinking. Then if an incident happens, they can show that they have been reasonable.

My feeling is that this is one of those judgements where readers may have different views. I have shared my thoughts. What do you think? Is it reasonable to have rocks – including quite large rocks – in an early years setting? Or is this an example of where the risk-benefit balance comes down on the side of caution? As ever, I would welcome your comments.

28 responses to ““Those rocks in that well are too dangerous.”

  1. good to see strong leadership for a change

  2. As a child I connected deeply with rocks. I claimed a boulder in a vacant lot as my domain; I crushed smaller rocks with larger rocks and had a crushed rock collection; I collected and studied rocks for many hours, and my mother encouraged me. I agree that the lessons from handling heavy rocks can transfer to other realms. I agree with the decision.
    I believe head trauma may have altered the outcome in many ways.

  3. My view is the centre did the right thing. I say that as a parent of an accident-waiting-to-happen daughter who seems to be a magnet for minor disasters. Yes, she often gets hurt, but she also learns to do stuff and when she needs to be properly careful.
    I find myself again looking at that pre-eminent playground, actively sought out by millions of people of all ages: the beach. It has rocks. It has all sorts of things that can go wrong (up to and including death), but it also has very few issues aired about it being inappropriate for early-years play. Perhaps it’s significant that it doesn’t have anyone beyond the user to *blame* or people who can be expected to push a Magic Button that makes everything perfect…

  4. I have rocks in my early years setting and the children love to lift them into a wheelbarrow and trundle them around, learning through real life. I despair at the attitude that young kids should only play with a sea of plastic toys, whilst wrapped in cotton wool.

  5. From my perspective the center did the right thing. The parent’s concern is understandable. We love our children and what to protect them. I found in raising my children that the best protection, especially as they grew, was to respond in ways that built their resilience and mindfulness. Otherwise, they grew fearful and failed to take risks. I broke my finger the other day on a garbage can…hee hee. Life happens…thankfully, we recover from most of it, and are stronger and wiser as a result.

  6. Thanks for all the reactions so far. Looks like Mel’s stance is supported. Peter – you are quite right about beaches (and their value as a precedent for other environments) – I’m annoyed I didn’t think of the comparison myself! Mommy theorist – your rock-related memories brought back some for me too, including going rock-hunting in quarries with my younger brothers. As for head trauma – well, yes, but I would argue that is not a realistic outcome to worry about in this context (though it may be in a quarry!)

  7. So glad that Mel had full support of whole centre behind her. Too often I hear of tree stumps or milk crates being removed from settings because 1 child falls & gets hurt.

  8. The same thing happened in our setting with bricks. I suppose as practitioners we become upset too when a child in our care is hurt as you naturally feel responsible. As a parent myself I understand how other parents feel too. But it’s a fact of life – accidents happen and we can only hope that they are few and far between. There’s a culture of blame out there and I suppose that’s what makes it more difficult to have the confidence to take risks. But somewhere along the way risk taking has become a negative thing. What happened to the ‘if you don’t try it you’ll never know’ scenario from our own childhoods? I’m glad to still be able to take small risks on a daily basis!

  9. And in my settings in the UK we ONLY use real house bricks for our outdoor construction – along with big thick ropes and large timbers and tyres and crates – and our children (aged 1 year to 5 years) have never had more than a minor scrape – but they have had – houses, boats, castles, obstacle courses, dens, fairy houses, cars, islands (mind the crocodiles) and lots more things that they really didn’t want to mention to us big people

  10. A broken finger heals. too many items are removed from childrens play these days for ‘safety’ reasons, but are the children really any safer as their brain is not working and thinking about how to take care of them selves in certain situations. its all removed from them and the so called’ safety standards do it all. I agree with the centres outcome, last week my daughter who only just turned two broke her leg at playgroup, falling off the ladder going to the slide. that slide is not removed or taken away, she has an accident, her leg is in a cast, an unpleasant afternoon at the hospital, and a bit of a difficult week so far, she is getting used to the cast and can now shuffle along floor to get where she wants to go. we are going back to playgroup tomorrow. accidents happen. there are many things she can play with inside. not saying I want children to get hurt, but I feel they miss out on so many learning opportunities because something is ‘unsafe’ which 30 yrs ago was fine to do.

  11. Last year I reached 60….. I was bought up in London and our playground was a bombsite (most didn’t get fixed until the 1970’s) and remember walking 1 mile home with a ‘seam’ down my leg from the barbed wire… and I bumped and bruised and broke and got dirty and ate things I really wouldn’t now – from worms and sour fruit through to mud pies and far too many everything… I took risks – I welcomed challenge – I was fit and then hungry and ate as much as I could and burnt it off. I had a horse which was my bed end and a tent under the kitchen table. I had secret places that I hid things from my brother and sister – in the garden in a hole under a rock – and they got wet and ruined when it rained…. I was severely at risk by today’s standards -Last year I reached a very happy 60 and I still play now….

  12. I remember as a child playing in the creek and using rocks to build dams and moving rocks to change the flow of water. I am 60 now and still love to do it.

  13. Loving the anecdotes – do keep them coming. I admire your stance Christina – and Tom your setting has clearly been inspired by your childhood memories!

  14. Terry McCawley

    Our Kindy went for a walk the other day to the creek and the children climbed up rocks (and yes they did slip) trod in puddles and mud, but had a wonderful time getting wet and dirty. It reminded me of the times I took my boys down to the creek to make dams, go tadpole hunting, jump in puddles and get dirty, wet and have fun exploring. Children are being held back enjoying and exploring their world if we stop doing these things.

  15. Thanks for this instructive story. I agree with you all, and want to add that it was instructive to see the usefulness of a (national) standard on play environments illustrated in this way.

    This story was linked to in an Icelandic group on childrens’ play (primarily kindergarten), and I want to convey a comment and question from there. One member asked whether the manning situation, i.e. whether the kindergarten is adequately staffed might influence choices regarding environments (natural and otherwise) that might be seen as “risk prone” to some.

    • Hi Morten, and thanks for dropping by. In general, I think educators would agree that staffing ratios are a factor to consider – and in the UK and Australia, there is a lot of focus on this in connection with off-site excursions. It is also a factor in some settings when deciding whether or not to allow children outside. But it would be wrong to think that higher staffing ratios can (or should) eliminate adverse outcomes. If you accept the idea that a degree of risk is good, then in my view, you accept that risks cannot and should not be eliminated through the presence of staff. Another point: in this case, I suspect the incident happened so fast that no amount of supervision could have guaranteed to have prevented it.

  16. I love rocks, and bamboo sticks for that matter. We use them all the time! We collect sticks and play with them as well. Just today I was working in one of our services, helping them out with some ‘challenging programming’. Earlier this week the children were making rock pets, today they were labelling them and giving them names with the brand new label making I bought them. We also started building the Eiffel Tower out of bamboo sticks! We have to believe children are competent and capable, taking the risk out of their play is not doing them any favours!

  17. Campbell Child Development Center incorporated 1-8 inch river rocks into our playground in 2002. These were inspired by a group of children who loved reading “Roxaboxen” by Alice McLerran. In 10 years time since we introduced rocks in our program, children have been observed using them as cargo, to create with, as imaginative props, to sit on, walk on, hold things down, make water move, and countless other inventions. Some fingers have been injured, a few toes, too.

    By removing risks from the environment, children create their own risks. Many times child created risks are more dangerous than the ones we intentionally plan/provide. It also seems that the need for Occupational Therapy has grown tremendously since I began teaching in 1988. Though we know more about what to look for and when to refer children, I believe responsibility must be taken to provide children natural opportunities for risk-taking and proprioceptive feedback in every day environments.

  18. I allowed my children to use knives, saws, scissors, fire, water and of course rocks and stones. Any accidents they ever had were random and could rarely have been anticipated or prevented. They have grown up to be confident, resourceful and well rounded adults, with all their fingers and toes intact.

  19. This example made me realise how little support I got from upper management on the subject of risk benefit. So I quit my job and now I am discovering centres who also share this philosophy of rich meaningful learning environments

  20. hi there,

    while i’m Scottish and my initial years as an educator were passed in Edinburgh i have lived and worked for the last 18 years in Reggio Emilia, in northern Italy. I find this an interesting subject I’d like to raise a couple of issues which might be of interest..

    the first is that here in Reggio we believe firmly in making available to children resources and material that are open ended and non specific in their use. Such material is hardly ever regular in shape and is certainly never created with the purpose of being handled solely by pre school children. Such material does however encourage not only their curiosity and peer interaction but also their ability to think creatively in terms of divergent thinking. Children are also much more naturally drawn to natural, authentic materials which allow them to connect directly with their environment. Neither will they necessary be content with what they are provided with..If you place children in a plastic purpose built sandbox it wont take them long before they are hunting out stones and sticks from their immediate environment to add to the equation whether you purposely provide them or not…

    secondly, we believe strongly that children understand very quickly what is expected from them by adults. Even our two year old children use recycled material, beads, wire , stones and metal objects in their constructions and creations. our pre schoolers climb ladders in their shadow play and eat with china plates glass tumblers which will of course at times be broken (as happens in every houselhold). international visitors are often horrified at this. and yet children rise to the occasion every time and learn very quickly what is appropriate behavior through appropriate modelling, and respectful guidance of the adult.-and of their peers – no one learns in isolation. children will quite simple interact with their environment at the level you expect of them and there can be no real inquiry or divergent thinking without risk taking. thanks for this post. wonderful stimulating site! Marianne

    • Marianne – thanks for this thoughtful comment. Like others, I am intrigued by the Reggio approach and its emphasis on children’s competences. It’s good to hear a flavour of what this means in practice.

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  24. Keep the rocks, thank goodness

  25. Pingback: #Nature Play — Leaves, Rocks, Nuts, and Seeds - Pure Play Every Day

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