Take risks, live longer

2nd November 2007 at 00:00
Children benefit from learning to cope with hazards: it means they are involved in fewer accidents.Children survive better by encountering and dealing with potential hazards than by being protected from all forms of danger, according to a new report.

It found that children who do not have the opportunity to take calculated risks as they grow up fail to develop the skills needed as adults.

The report, Risk and Childhood by the Royal Society for the Arts, highlights the fact that children today are safer than they have ever been. It says: "Children live longer and are healthier and they have fewer accidents of all kinds, including road traffic accidents.

"There is little evidence to confirm that either stranger danger or crime has got markedly worse."

The report breaks down the levels of different dangers for children (see table). Only 0.03 children per million sustain serious injuries in playgrounds each year. This works out at approximately one child for every 33,333 secondaries. There are only 25,200 schools in England.

By contrast, 100 children from an average secondary and 25 from an average primary injure themselves in the home every year. Almost a quarter of pupils in every secondary are likely to have drunk alcohol in the last week.

The RSA report concludes that it is important to find the right balance between challenge and risk. For example, it supports removing the fear of litigation for teachers taking pupils on a school trip.

It claims that risk-aversion measures often backfire: parents who keep their children off the streets have helped to raise a more sedentary, increasingly obese generation.

Instead, it encourages more male role models for both boys and girls, suggesting that children tend to engage in more physical, risky activities when supervised by men. Older teenagers should also be trained to look out for younger children, to encourage independent play.

The RSA held a one-day conference this week, to launch the report. Among the speakers was Robin Alexander, leader of the national review of primary education.

Professor Alexander claims that comparisons with a past childhood idyll are often false. "We live in a more risk-conscious and risk-averse society," he said. "But a lot of talk about the loss of childhood innocence is harking back to some kind of middle-class existence that didn't exist for the majority of society."

And a book published this week claims that levels of playground bullying are exaggerated and that milder teasing helps children to develop resilience.

In No Fear: Growing Up in a Risk-Averse Society, former government adviser Tim Gill says that labelling minor fallings-out as bullying prevents children from learning to protect themselves.

"Bullying is where the victimisation is sustained and there is a power imbalance," he says.

"I do not mean we should allow unbridled cruelty, just that one option is asking, 'Can you sort it out yourself?' And Tony Sewell, who works with underachieving black boys, said: "Risk-taking is a crucial part of adolescence. The irony is that you put children at greater risk by taking away all the risks for them."

- www.thersa.org

How risks rate

0.03 per million children sustain serious injuries in playgrounds each year.

6 per million children are abducted by a stranger each year.

17 per million children under 16 are killed as passengers in vehicles.

73 per million children are murdered every year, mainly by parents.

1,500 per million 11-to-18-year-olds were involved in knife crime in London during a four-month period in 2006

2,400 per million children under 16 have road accidents every year.

9,000 per million 16-to-19-year-olds are diagnosed with chlamydia every year.

40,000 per million children are sexually abused by a parent, carer or relative before the age of 16.

40,000 per million 11 to 15-year-olds report taking illegal drugs at least once a month.

40,000 per million 15 to 17-year-old girls become pregnant in any one year.

90,000 per million 11 to 15-year-olds smoke regularly.

100,000 per million children injure themselves at home each year.

140,000 per million two to 10-year-olds are obese.

220,000 per million 11 to 15-year-olds say they have drunk alcohol in the previous week.

Source: statistics from a range of agencies collected by RSA.

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