As you may know, we have a tree house in the garden at Mill Grove. It is about four metres above ground level, and access is by a rope ladder. Over the years this has given rise to a range of reactions. Many children and young people have enjoyed playing in it and using it as a base for exploring higher branches of the tree. An Ofsted inspector was visibly horrified by the danger it represented. The pre-school nursery has classified it as such a risk that it is out of bounds. It creates anxiety in parents, but is immensely attractive to children of all ages.
It so happens that when I was in the garden a few days ago children from our new breakfast and after school club (Kidsown) ran into the garden. Before long two of them were heading for the rope ladder with the obvious intention of scaling it, and the staff instinctively turned to me for advice. My reaction was very laid back. I ambled to the bottom of the ladder and watched the children climb it, helping a little by holding the ladder tight.
Before long they had reached the top of the ladder, and were enjoying the bird’s eye views the house offered of the garden and a nearby road the other side of the garden wall. At this point two of my grandchildren decided to join in the adventure: the five-year-old went right up the ladder and was thrilled to look down from this eyrie. The three-year-old then set about the ascent, and reached the house for the first time. Others looked at me with varying degrees of concern and anxiety. She and I agreed that she would look at the house from the top of the ladder, but not perform the mantelshelf move that would be required to enter it.
One or two other children climbed a few rungs of the ladder and thought better of the enterprise. The three who had occupied the tree house eventually came down.
On reflection, a couple of the staff thanked me for being there. The consensus was that had I not been present they would have had to declare the tree house out of bounds (for all children, all of the time). I commented that I hadn’t actually done anything. But clearly what mattered was that I was there, and was relaxed and quietly confident about what was happening. And this was how we came to identify how I tended to operate alongside children and young people in informal situations.
The simple rule of thumb that I use is never to use the words, “Be careful!” This might seem impractical, if not downright irresponsible. So let me explain the rationale.
There are five principles underlying this whole approach:
First, it is for me to assess the situation and environment before anything happens and the children begin to explore. This means that I have done a “risk assessment” and decided that the likely activities of the particular children involved will be safe enough. This assessment relies on my own experience and knowledge, and my own capabilities. (So in the case of the tree house, I know the ladder and house well, and have often climbed into the house alone or with children and young people.)
Second, it is vital that children are allowed the space and opportunities to explore for themselves, making their own judgments about what they want to attempt or try. In short, they will decide whether they feel safe or not, and I will not add to their anxiety. They must learn to do their own risk assessments, individually and collectively. Much activity is self-regulating: that is, if children can’t do it, then they won’t do it, and therefore cannot come to any harm.
Thirdly, it is for adults to seek to identify or create as many possible child-friendly environments as possible where children can explore the natural world themselves.
Fourth, resourceful adults will be around, and near enough to respond to requests from children should they feel that they are getting into trouble. There is accessibility without dependency.
Fifth, the individuality of each child, and the particularity of each environment mean that a bureaucratic or inflexible policy of “health and safety” will be unhelpful unless it is couched in the sort of terms being outlined here.
With these principles in mind, let me share a couple of reflections on other recent experience. I was with parents with children with cerebral palsy in the very same garden the day after the incidents I have described. These children were not able to scale the ladder and so it proved to be a self-regulating facility. But what I noticed was the way the parents let the children explore the rest of the garden, totter and fall over, always erring on the side of letting the children play and explore. They never once said “Be careful!” In fact I warned one parent about a concrete slope which their child was approaching on a walking frame with wheels. Too late: the child set off down the slope gathering pace rapidly. The parent knew what I didn’t: the frame and the child’s abilities meant that there was little risk. What I saw as risk was actually revealing my own lack of insight and knowledge. How often do we allow bureaucratic policies to override this particular parental and childly wisdom?
Then back to my beloved North Wales. We had some great times again this summer on the hills, in rivers, sailing, and on cliffs and beaches. But there is one incident that stands out. I was going for a swim in the sea at Borth-y-Gest, and others said they would like to join me. I pointed out that as the spring tide was ebbing strongly I planned to walk to a neighbouring beach, and then to swim into the main flow of the tide, thus coming round a headland to our beach at a great speed. About eight of us set out to do this, including two youngsters whose swimming abilities I did not yet know very well. They said they could swim, and we set off. Within a matter of seconds it became apparent that whatever they meant by swimming was different to what I had in mind!
Trite or Reckless?
So why did I set off, seemingly putting them at risk? Because I knew the sea and tide really well, and also the other swimmers who made up the group. Between us we were able to come alongside these two children and that without any sense of alarm or crisis. And so it was that we formed a little flotilla that drifted around a headland and arrived without effort on our beach. The youngsters wanted to do it again. And they did, but at my suggestion on the next occasion with buoyancy aids. At no time did anyone say “Be careful!”
If I had been virtually anywhere else in the UK, I would have hesitated, but here I was in my element: relaxed and therefore confident.
I hope I have managed to steer a path between what might sound rather trite and simplistic, on the one hand, and reckless on the other. All I want to suggest is that by restricting the use of these two frequently used words, we might help to revolutionise an important aspect of parenting, care and childhood.