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Thursday, March 3, 2011

Physical challenge versus physical safety: the dangers of boring an active child to death

Yesterday I watched a 3-year-old indigenous boy- let's call him Jimmy- climb a tree in the preschool yard with the speed and skill of a cheeky little monkey.  He climbed far higher than any of the staff would have imagined a small child could, and put the staff into an unexpected dilemma.

We realised immediately that the tree was close enough to the fence to allow Jimmy to jump over and 'escape' if he chose, not to mention that he had a good chance of breaking a bone or two if he fell. It wasn't a danger we'd foreseen, because it simply hadn't occurred to us that any of the children (let alone a 3-year-old) could climb that high on a tree which appeared to have minimal footholds.  Before we could reach the tree and 'rescue' Jimmy, he made a decision and simply jumped back into the yard from a height of nearly two metres, landing safely with a slight roll like an expert.

He probably was an expert.  In my experience, most indigenous parents are still happy to let their children experience the highs and lows of 'normal' risky childhood behaviour like climbing trees, and the odd broken bone as a result doesn't phase them particularly.  There was a time when most parents felt like that.

Where do you stand? What's your reaction to that story, and what would you do if you were a carer or the parent of that child?

Would you make a rule about climbing the trees, or cut the tree down, or apply to the centre's owners to have the fence made higher, or trim the branches closest to the fence?

Would you lecture the child, panic and check for broken bones, or laugh or applaud?

Your answers will differ depending on your personal experiences and views, your background culture and the expectations put upon you by others.  I have no doubt that some childcare centres would be so afraid of being sued by a parent that they'd remove the trees completely.  Some parents would also insist that the trees be removed, for fear their child might break his neck copying that risky behaviour.  To me, that's a symptom of one of the huge failings of our modern cotton-wool society, where fear of litigation has driven common sense out the window and normal childhood risk-taking has become taboo by association.

Here's my view: Jimmy was doing what comes naturally and doing it brilliantly, and there should be more of it.  I applauded his ability, laughed and made sure I was there to catch him next time he did it.  Other children tried to climb the tree at once, of course, but they couldn't get anywhere near a dangerous height- which provided young Jimmy with a lot of respect from his peers.  Jimmy isn't a particularly outstanding child in other ways, in fact he tends to struggle.  His physical co-ordination and strength is something for him to be proud of, and I refuse to squash this in the name of fear.

In the interests of ongoing safety, I'll be back there ASAP with my partner and a chain saw to trim the trees a little so we don't have Jimmy disappearing down the lane when our backs are turned- that really IS dangerous- but how I wish I could just move the fence!

In holding these views, I'm out of step with society.  It seems that some parents, and most childcare professionals, are almost insanely fearful of letting children risk hurting themselves by testing themselves physically.  In fact, there are very strict guidelines in place about how play equipment can be set up, to the point where any child with above-average gross motor skills is likely to find the average play area completely devoid of challenge. To me, that's WRONG and discriminates against children like Jimmy whose strongest abilities are found in that area.

I really should have been ready for what Jimmy did; I remember some years ago watching another indigenous child at another centre shimmy up the post that held the shadecloth in a flash, right to the top (and I also remember that I was the only one to laugh and applaud, while the rest of the staff berated him crossly for dangerous behaviour).  That child's next trick was to hurdle the fence and run off down the street, because he was bored rigid by the play equipment in the yard and felt hostile towards the staff who had criticised him for what he did best.

A child who loves to climb but can't find anything worth climbing in the yard (or is not allowed to do so) will bring that energy indoors.  Next thing you'll find her on top of the shelving, or swinging like Tarzan from the display lines or curtains, or leaping off the table.  That sort of behaviour is far more dangerous indoors, where fixtures have hard edges and corners, where there's less open space, where heavy mobile items of furniture are not designed to be swung on and can topple, and where fragile ornaments might prove lethal when broken on the average living room floor.  Active children who haven't been sufficiently active outdoors also make indoors an unsafe and frantic environment for other children, who have a right to expect a relatively tranquil indoor experience.

So to me, it's actually less dangerous to have more challenging playground equipment and climbable trees in the yard than it is to stick within the rules and bore the more physically active children to death.  We have to be aware of that fine line between healthy risk and actual danger, and we have to be a bit more creative in working within the rules; carers would be well advised to up the ante on outdoor activities and programme high-energy running games, gymnastics, high jump and long jump opportunities and highly complex obstacle courses.  Plenty of open space for improvised football and cricket games is also desirable.

And for heavens' sake, let the poor kids climb the trees- put a soft fall mat underneath if you must, but please let kids be kids and take a few risks.

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