Too much caution is a major stumbling block

5th December 2003 at 00:00
Health and safety issues and the compensation culture are giving me sleepless nights. It all came to a head recently when four Year 1 classes were due to visit the woods for a "looking for signs of autumn" day trip.

The ranger phoned and said that if it was windy the children would have to wear hard hats in case twigs or small branches fell on them.

Hard hats for a walk in the woods? Have we lost the plot? I don't think my downfall will be low Sats results or falling standards, it will be a child lost in a pothole in the playground. I would have loved the children to have been able to climb the trees, roll on the ground and see the sun shining through the leaves, but they had to wear protective gloves to pick up conkers and fallen leaves.

In a previous school, the innovative nursery teacher wanted a tyre for the children to swing on. It was a brilliant success; all those upper arm muscles were exercised and fine motor control increased. We took the swing down when Ofsted came to call - which was cowardly - but health and safety was high on their agenda at the time. I would be braver now and leave it up and justify it.

How do children learn to judge risks if they never take any? I have always believed that children are good judges of their own abilities. It is rare to find a true kamikaze child in PE willing to throw him or herself from the highest climbing frame. Accidents happen, but that is exactly what they are; something you didn't plan.

An older friend tells me that he used to play on bomb sites as a child, and walked on crumbling walls with lethal drops. He crawled through old sewers and swung over bottomless holes. Had he fallen, I doubt his parents would have been able to sue the Germans. He had true freedom. He was given the opportunity to make decisions on his own and used his imagination to create endless adventures. Life is so anodyne for our children now, it is no surprise that some have little imagination or spark.

I know schools which ban running in the playground; staff agonise over whether to allow handstands and cartwheels. When we had snow last year for the first time in many years, I was told of a head who threatened in assembly, "Don't touch the snow". I'm sure there's more to that story, but don't children need to roll in it, play with it and catch snowflakes on their tongue?

My fear is that we will soon be issuing children with an adventure playground computer program at playtime. Switch on and run, jump and play in a simulated world, where if you fall off a log it won't hurt.

I have the answer. As the children come through the school gate I will issue them with hard hats, protective gloves and shoes and have the cotton wool ready to wrap them up in. Then let anybody try and sue us.

Sue Walker is headteacher at an infants' school in Kent

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