Today children, we're taking risks

6th June 2008 at 01:00
Year 1s build dens, hold campfires and avoid nettles in woods to counter `cotton-wool' culture

Year 1s build dens, hold campfires and avoid nettles in woods to counter `cotton-wool' culture

A primary school is building campfires in its grounds and making children play in a wood in an attempt to make them more willing to take risks.

Such activities at The Wroxham School in Potters Bar, Hertfordshire, are designed to counter the "cotton wool" culture in which parents and teachers are too protective of children's safety.

The school has been making use of woodland on the edge of its playground for the last two years. It introduced a rule in January that all Year 1 pupils must spend one morning a week in the woods, whether it is raining or sunny.

Each year group also has a den-building week, in which they construct shelters to learn about life outdoors. At the end of such weeks they hold outdoor feasts, which are held around the school's new campfires. These have been built around the forest and ringed with seats which are made from telegraph poles, although the fires are only lit under adult supervision.

Alison Peacock, Wroxham's headteacher, said: "My feeling is that we should enable children to feel safe enough to take risks. We have to provide that in a structured curriculum. The alternative is to do none of that: to sanitise the world.

"It seems to me that children are far more vulnerable if they don't know what happens when they try new things."

The school did make some changes to the woods before letting pupils play and study in it.

"It was overgrown," explained Mrs Peacock. "The trees had to be surveyed, some overhanging branches needed to be removed and we replaced damaged fencing.

"Anything obviously poisonous was removed, and we made sure there was no broken glass.

"There is a difference between risk-taking and recklessness. There are still nettles, for example - we didn't sanitise it altogether."

Three teachers at the school are now training as forest school leaders, which will enable them to teach children authoratively and safely about the environmental, social, and economic potential of woodlands.

The shift in Wroxham's approach appears to have been welcomed by inspectors. Five years ago, the school was in special measures, but its most recent Ofsted report rated it as outstanding.

Mrs Peacock said: "It all sounds quite laissez-faire and free, but to have the freedom you need rigorous standards underneath it. The best classrooms look as if learning just happens. Of course it doesn't just happen, but everyone in it knows how to work, so you don't need to shout about rules."

Wroxham's approach is further examined in the educational journal `Forum', www.wwwords.co.ukForum.

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