Adventure is just a fantasy

4th February 2005 at 00:00
In the popular children's stories of yesteryear the action was for real. But now it seems our risk-averse culture has even permeated children's literature

A group of eight-year-olds walked with an adult in the school grounds. One boy stepped up on to a two brick-high low wall and proceeded to walk along it. "That's dangerous!" said a girl primly, and looked to the adult for approval of her caution.

A couple of responsible Year 6s were getting the overhead projector ready for assembly. The stand was too low so one of the children up-ended a plastic box and prepared to stand the projector on top of it. "That's dangerous!" said his companion.

It's a pity there are no targets for safety awareness because primary school pupils would hit them every time. They may not always pay attention in spelling or maths but they have learnt the lesson that is drummed in by every teacher and classroom assistant, every mealtime supervisor and lollipop lady, that the world is full of hazards. And it's no wonder that adults are so anxious to get the message across. The health and safety lobby is vocal and nobody wants a lawsuit or an injured child.

Most of the things that are fun carry some risk, whether it's keeping gerbils or pond dipping, games of conkers or snowball fights, all of which have been banned in one primary or another on health and safety grounds.

The most dedicated teacher is deterred by the prospect of 16 forms to fill in before the children catch so much as a stickleback - or worse a court appearance to explain just what Kylie was doing skidding on the frozen playground when she broke her ankle.

So it's easier to say no. Foreseeing dangers and banning them becomes the responsible, grown-up thing to do. And if the curriculum becomes rather bland, well that's the price that must be paid.

The trouble is, the process does not stop at the school gate. Schools simply reflect the prevailing culture and ours is risk averse. Children must be closely supervised at all times and the freedoms which generations of children took for granted, to walk to school on their own, to play games of their own choosing, to enjoy long stretches of time on their own have been rescinded by adults without debate and without appeal.

Nor can they turn to fiction for escape. A popular theme among earlier children's writers was a group of children solving problems and having adventures on their own. That's the appeal of the Famous Five books or stories such as The Railway Children. Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons kicks off with a telegram sent by the children's father, away at sea. The children want to learn to sail and their mother, rather anxious about the idea, consults him.

"Better drowned than duffers," runs his reply. "If not duffers won't drown." The message, with its breezy confidence in his children's ability to look after themselves, seems reckless today. No life jackets? No safety drills?

This particular genre of adventure story set in the real world has pretty well disappeared. Instead girls devour issue books with bubble gum jackets and candy floss themes. Plots turn on making or keeping friends and the dangers their characters face are peer pressure and bullying, not physical peril. Jacqueline Wilson's heroines ride an emotional roller coaster, but it's against the familiar background of the playground and the supermarket and those warm and womb-like bedrooms.

The most popular books for boys, by contrast, offer risks a-plenty but their heroes are unattainable supermen who were born world-weary and bristling with unlikely skills. They're terrific wish-fulfillment but not a lot of use as role models. Anthony Horowitz's mini James Bond figure, Alex Rider, is the prime example. A master of martial arts, he can scale a wall in seconds and frequently does. He enjoys long unexplained absences from school while hard at work outwitting the secret services. Another popular character, Artemis Fowl, created by Eoin Colfer, is a millionaire with ranks of computers and a butler to take care of the fisticuffs.

Only in fantasy can children identify with characters of their own age who have the freedom to make their own mistakes. Unfettered by parents or teachers, health and safety regulations and demands to be in by teatime, the Lyras and Harry Potters of this world can head off into the unknown to explore new worlds and take on the forces of darkness. They face risks.

They learn lessons and they grow. It's a good message for children and it seems a pity that it's confined to fantasy. The impulse to protect children is a very powerful one and it is natural to fear for their safety. It takes courage to give children the freedom to take risks, particularly when this is in flat contravention of a whole shelf-load of policies. But if we don't step back how will children ever learn to take chances? How will they ever find out that the world outside their safe classrooms is sometimes frightening and often uncomfortable but that it is exciting and filled with opportunities that are there for the taking. We know that they listen to us and that the messages we preach go home. Let's try to get that message right.

Dinah Starkey is a freelance primary consultant

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