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It’s time to stop wrapping our children up in cotton wool

PUBLISHED: 20:01 10 August 2017 | UPDATED: 20:01 10 August 2017

Best friends playing together. Photo: gpointstudio/thinkstock

Best friends playing together. Photo: gpointstudio/thinkstock


At primary school, the metal climbing frame was built on concrete.

Every swing on the slippery monkey bars, crawl across the top – which felt, at eight, as high as the Eiffel Tower – was a risk, and one worth taking

Our knees were permanently grazed, bruised and scabbed from falling off, or tripping over playing catch on the playground. It was an occupational hazard.

We learned early that life was about taking risks.

Weighing up before taking that leap.

Facing fears and feeling triumphant when it works, learning lessons when it didn’t.

Looking back, individuals’ experience to that climbing frame translated into their later attitude to life.

The boy risk-taker – always first to the top, shouting instructions to everyone else, leading every game and assault on the steel-grey structure – turned into a warship commander who now does something important in the Pentagon for the US forces.

Those who slunk about the edges fearing the “what ifs” haven’t ventured far from their hometown, content in their safety zone of minimal risk.

Some people are born risk takers, others are risk averse, but practice in taking risks can change that natural instinct – if they’re allowed.

Being confident to look fear in the eye and take risk is the sign of a successful person.

It builds resilience and strength. Being terrified of risk thwarts individuality and ambition and leads to just settling for the easy option.

But risk, as a natural selector, came to be seen as the enemy in the last couple of decades.

Risk assessments became a national obsession. If something could go wrong, best not to even try it.

‘Elf and Safety would take one look, frown, point a finger and slap a condemned activity sticker on whatever might pose a whiff of danger, especially in schools.

Risk = danger and danger = ban.

School playgrounds and fields stopped being exciting arenas of adventure and exploration for the under 10s, becoming restricted areas, accessible only in fine weather and for standing still and walking sensibly in.

Sports days became anodyne everyone’s a winner events, school fields were out of bounds if there was a bit of dew, playtimes became “indoor play” if there had been a hint of rain making any outside surface slippery, a hint of snow would shut the school – an icy playground was a hazard zone – so teachers didn’t even get to impose the no snowball rule and school trips fizzled out because of the mountain of risk assessment paperwork demanded.

Anything that was vaguely dangerous was avoided.

Children were wrapped in cotton wool.

Fear of the “what if” also crept into parenting.

Children were taught by over-anxious parents to be afraid – of traffic, dogs, heights – as parents took care of everything for them, their children watching life pass by out of a car or house window.

It can’t be a coincidence that, as children’s natural instincts to take risks were thwarted, bad behaviour in the classroom escalated.

Like caged bird, their wings clipped and natural instincts thwarted.

Now, as the no-risk mindset turns out a generation of ninnies who have never thought through a risk in their early lives because every responsibility has been stripped from them, the Ofsted chief is admitting schools have got it wrong.

Overcautious health and safety procedures in schools are denying children the chance to develop “resilience and grit”, the chief inspector of schools, Amanda Spielman, says.

So much so, it was damaging young people to the point that they had no idea what to do about “normal everyday risk” or assess real and imagined risk. Hallelujah.

Snakes of tiny tots in hi-vis vests on school trips made her feel “uncomfortable and sad” and neurosis of teachers to focus and worry about bump harmfully limited children’s freedom.

Her comment should be blown up and stuck on to the wall in every school staff room in the UK.

“Trying to insulate your pupils from every bump, germ or bruise won’t just drive you to distraction, it will short-change those pupils as well – limiting their opportunity to fully take advantage of the freedom of childhood, and to explore the world around them.”

The world doesn’t need nervous ninnies.

It needs the boundary breakers, the risk takers, and the brave.

Watching the world out of a window has short-changed too many young people.

It’s time to let them out and at it.

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