Wednesday 14 November 2007


A playground tumble can do you good

More experts recognise that a scraped knee can be a positive experience for a child. Let’s hope they now relax about other ‘dangers’ in kids’ lives.

This week, Tom Mullarkey, chief executive of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA), warned against wrapping children in cotton wool. The head of a charity that normally raises the red flag about children having accidents made a very sensible comment: ‘A skinned knee or a twisted ankle in a challenging and exciting play environment is not only acceptable, it is a positive necessity to educate our children and to prepare them for a complex, dangerous world.’

Accidents lead to 12,000 deaths in Britain each year, and 4,000 of these occur in the home. Mullarkey said these figures show that RoSPA needs to continue with its accident-prevention work, but he also said that things should be ‘as safe as necessary, not as safe as possible’. RoSPA is calling for an intelligent debate about how we manage risk today, especially the risks facing children. With his new book No Fear: Growing Up in a Risk-Averse Society, author Tim Gill has helped to kickstart this debate, raising some crucial questions about risk-aversion and the impact it has on children’s lives.

Gill opens his book by discussing a primary school in Lincolnshire that has banned pupils from playing kiss chase and tag, because of concerns that children might bump into each other. ‘The prohibition has also been seen in the US, Australia and Ireland, where in one county, half of all primary schools have banned running in the playground altogether’, says Gill.

These are only the more extreme examples of society’s inability to deal with risk, and allow children to deal with it, too. As Gill rightly points out: ‘Activities and experiences that previous generations of children enjoyed without a second thought have been labelled as troubling or dangerous, while the adults who permit them are branded irresponsible.’

The principal chapter in Gill’s book takes a long hard look at the discouragingly dull nature of British school playgrounds. Increasingly, children’s play has been severely curtailed and restricted by society’s exaggerated sense of fear. The rot started with an episode of the BBC entertainment/consumer activist show That’s Life in May 1990. Headed by Esther Rantzen, a team of the show’s presenters covered a campaign launched by a member of parliament to make safety surfacing a legal requirement in all British playgrounds. The show focused in particular on the case of an eight-year-old girl who died after falling from a swing and hitting her head on the tarmac below.

Quite quickly in the wake of this campaign, playground providers felt compelled to introduce impact-absorbing surfacing. But research in to the prevalence of playground injuries, carried out by David Ball, a professor of risk management at Middlesex University, revealed that these safety measures did not result in a decrease in the number of accidents. Accident rates were steady between 1988 and 2002 despite the introduction of new safety standards and the spread of impact-absorbing surfacing. In fact, as Gill writes: ‘A growing number of experts think that the rubber safety surfacing most often used in the UK may lead to more broken arms than other types of surface.’

The good news is that attitudes towards playground safety have become more relaxed in recent years. After a decade of fretting over playground safety, there is a new climate, says Gill, ‘in which providers can build less safety-oriented, more challenging playgrounds’. Gill himself, who has written about children and risk for a number of years, should be given some credit for helping to shift the focus away from mollycoddling children towards allowing them some freedom, alongside other researchers and writers, including Middlesex University’s David Ball, spiked contributor and author of Culture of Fear Frank Furedi, and various campaign groups such as Generation Youth Issues in Scotland.

Yet while playgrounds are slowly but surely becoming more challenging again, and while even RoSPA now recognises the ‘benefit’ of a scraped knee to a growing child, the challenge today is to move the debate forward on a whole range of issues relating to children and risk. There may be a growing consensus among play professionals and policymakers that children need more challenging play environments – that scraping knees, grazing elbows and getting bruises does children no harm in the long run, and may even, as RSoPA says, teach them ‘valuable lifelong lessons’ – but very few people challenge the idea that other children, as well as adults, pose a potential risk to our kids.

For example, there is still an unshakeable consensus that children should never be subjected to the risk of ‘life-long harm’ from bullying or ‘unwanted attention’ from adults. Such is the climate of suspicion surrounding adults who work with children today that teachers, youth club workers and others are reluctant to comfort injured or distressed kids. Society may be more relaxed about children scraping their knees, but it is tying itself in knots over who should be allowed to put a plaster on that scraped knee.

Gill deals with this important issue in his criticism of the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act, which was passed into law in England and Wales last year and which requires the millions of adults whose work involves coming into contact with children to undergo Criminal Records Bureau checks. ‘[This act] in effect places nine million adults technically under suspicion of abuse: a third of the adult working population’, writes Gill. He warns that the attempt to regulate contact between adults and children ‘can undermine the very bonds of mutual trust that make communities welcoming, safe places for children’.

Inculcating children with a fear of strangers is actually counterproductive. Telling them to ‘never speak to strangers’ can lead them to believe it is wrong for adults to initiate social contact with children. At a time when adult motives are treated so suspiciously, it is heartening to read Gill’s defence of human compassion: ‘The vast majority of adults do not intend to harm children they do not know. So strangers are a largely dependable source of help if things go wrong.’

Gill is also sceptical about all the scaremongering in relation to screen-based technologies, the idea that kids are at risk when they venture on to the World Wide Web. ‘Risk elimination is no more possible here than anywhere else in childhood’, he argues. ‘It is especially futile to base responses on the premise that children are in some global sense vulnerable. In their online lives, children are successfully learning and sharing ways to pursue their interests, while keeping themselves safe.’

For me, the weakest part of No Fear is the chapter on ‘Who is to blame?’ Gill rightly argues that, although parents may be the conduits of much risk-aversion, they are not the source of it. Yet having argued that a host of social and cultural changes have made parents more danger-aware and controlling of their children’s lives, Gill then writes: ‘Perhaps foremost amongst these is traffic danger.’ He seems to believe that one reason why parents keep kids in doors is because the roads are, and have long been, unsafe.

Gill cites a 2001 UNICEF report on child deaths by injury: ‘Telling parents that they are being overprotective and that the roads are becoming safer for their children is, in this context, like telling them that they can let their children play with matches again because deaths from fire have been falling.’ What Gill is getting at when he quotes this UNICEF argument is that the fall in the pedestrian death rate over the past few decades could be due to a corresponding decrease in children’s exposure to traffic.

Fewer and fewer children are allowed out and about on their own today. Where the average mileage children travelled by car increased by 70 per cent between 1985 and 2003, the average mileage they travelled on foot declined by 19 per cent, and the average mileage they cycled fell by 58 per cent . So, you could indeed argue, as Gill does, that children are safer because they are not exposed to traffic to the same extent as children in the past were.

Yet the dramatic reduction in road accidents involving child pedestrians cannot be explained solely on the basis of the reduction in the number of children on the streets. Traffic deaths have fallen also as a result of safer car design, better braking technology, improvements in accident and emergency services, reductions in the prevalence of drink-driving, and the introduction of traffic-calming measures. Also, the UNICEF report shows that the Netherlands and the UK have managed to reduce child traffic death rates to similar levels, even though children’s exposure to traffic is very different in these two countries. Sixty per cent of Dutch children (aged 12 to 14) travel to most places by bike; less than 10 per cent of British children travel by bike.

The solution is not to insulate children from traffic. Ultimately children need to learn to cross the road on their own. Indeed, one could argue that they are now so insulated from traffic that they are not becoming sufficiently ‘street-wise’.

My other beef with No Fear is that Gill sometimes lets the government and policymakers off the hook, arguing that ‘the media are undeniably major factors in the escalation of public anxiety yet, as always, are unwilling to accept any responsibility for this’. I agree that the media have a lot to answer for. Journalists and reporters constantly tell us how dangerous the modern world is for children, and unquestionably cover all the advocacy research that backs up this doom-mongering worldview. Hardly a day goes by without new media reports suggesting that children and young people are on the verge of a mental breakdown, at risk from paedophiles, bullying, anti-social behaviour, drugs and alcohol, and are facing an obesity epidemic that will result in them ‘dying before their parents’.

All of this no doubt contributes to a sense that the world is a scary and threatening place for kids. However, we should avoid pinning all the blame on the media. The government and various government-sponsored charities have done far more than their fair share of scaremongering. For example, it was a report published by the House of Commons Health Select Committee in 2004 that triggered the irrational panic about the obesity epidemic that would apparently ‘kill off’ many of our children; it is the government’s Sex Offenders Register that institutionalises the idea that perverted adults are stalking kids; it is the government’s Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act, a Stalinist piece of legislation that legitimates spying on millions of adults, which communicates the message: ‘Children are at danger.’ And numerous charities, including the NSPCC and ChildLine, help to sustain the idea that life is worse for children than in the past. And yet, because No Fear is aimed very much at policymakers, Gill seems keen to tread carefully, and avoid alienating government officials and charity workers too much.

Gill has been able to get the government’s ear in recent years, so as long as he continues challenging today’s risk-aversion he is making a positive contribution to the debate about children. And his book is a very welcome antidote to all the wild scaremongering about children’s lives. If we can harness this positive outlook not only to call for more challenging playgrounds and more childish rough-and-tumble, but also to challenge institutionalised suspicion and state-authorised scaremongering, then we really might free up our children’s lives and allow them both to enjoy themselves and to learn through living.

No Fear: Growing Up in a Risk Averse Society, by Tim Gill is published by Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation. (Buy this book from Amazon (UK)). Visit Tim Gill’s website here.

First published by spiked