Risk and children…and the great outdoors

March 7, 2011

A bit of background to me, before I start:

As part of my professional background, I’ve felt honoured to have been a Chartered Member of the Institute of Safety and Health (CMIOSH), based on both arduous professional experience and studious post graduate education. One of the reasons I left the Health and Safety profession, per se, is because as an individual, I am not particularly risk averse…ok I may not do extreme ironing (in fact I no longer iron at all, but that’s a different discussion!).

No: one of the main reasons was that I felt, in a working environment, that clearly, whilst protection from injury is paramount, increasingly bureaucratic risk assessment was taking over from individual behavioural safety based on intrinsic risk awareness. People are becoming not just more risk averse, but are becoming increasingly unaware of risk.

So it is true of children. There is much research to show that allowing children the freedom to engage in risky outdoor play develops both their understanding of risk and offers them the opportunity to learn their own limitations. Children do not, as a general rule, seek to get hurt. Providing them with situations where they can explore the relationship between safety and potential danger extends their problem solving skills, but more importantly allows them to develop judgements, and assess risk in a variety of circumstances.

This last couple of weeks, some children taught me a thing or two about risk, assessment, safe systems of work and more importantly they taught me about trust and collaboration.

They wanted a zip wire in the wood….

There were several issues here that popped into my head: height, speed, rope tension, use of shackles, weight load, ground conditions, space….. and whilst I was caught up in their enthusiastic plans, a part of me was groaning at the thought of potentially having to explain away a broken limb to a parent. I was a the border of my comfort zone as far as risk was concerned. I put these thoughts to one side as we talked about how we would go about it and I decided to trust these 8 and 9 year olds….

The discussions finally settled on the leaders being responsible for the safety of the knots and the rope and the shackle and the seat. But we made all of these together, talking the children through the best knots for each part of the structure and encouraging them to learn these. The children then worked out their own safe system of play. One person at the landing, 3 at the top ( one to hold the rope, one to check the all clear ( the spotter) and the rider). They worked out a safe sequence: the person holding the rope with the seat would wait till the all clear from the spotter, then get a signal of readiness from the person at the bottom. The rider would say “good to go” then count down 3,2,1 at which point the rope would be let go, the rider would be off, and the person at the bottom would get ready for the landing.

They agreed the knots, the rope and the shackles would be checked before each ride, and then we set about making sure we had a landing path that was free of stone/twigs. We agreed a procedure if someone fell off. And that was it…. we had a zip wire that was “good to go”.

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