Playground squabbles

The discussion about children's play is really about adults.

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

A survey produced by the Children’s Society and Children’s Play Council to mark National Playday on 7 August produced a startling list of everyday activities that many children are prevented from doing for safety reasons.

A large proportion of kids can’t play with water, climb trees, ride bikes, make daisy-chains, or play conkers or tag, to name just a few. Tim Gill, director of Children’s Play Council, criticised ‘a growing culture of caution’ for stifling children’s ability to play (1).

The day before, on 6 August, the UK government released a long-awaited updated version of its official guidance on educational visits (2). This sparked a discussion about schools’ increasing reluctance to organise school trips, from adventure holidays to museum visits, for fear of accidents happening; and the reaction focused on the consequences for children having been deprived these risks and pleasures.

The Times (London) even wrote an editorial on the dangers of over-protecting kids. ‘Children should be allowed the freedom to learn and live’, it argued, pointing out that ‘childhood in Britain is a remarkably safe stage of life’, but that still, ‘parents and public authorities are paranoid about child safety’. ‘Who suffers?’ asks the editorial. ‘The children themselves.’ (3)

It is heartening to see a reaction against modern society’s safety-first attitude towards child-rearing. As has previously been argued on spiked, children’s ability to play freely and take a few risks is crucial for their development into capable, independent adults (see Child safety has its own dangers, by Helene Guldberg; Play on, by Jenny Cunningham).

But in focusing on what our over-cautious culture means for children, we risk missing that much of this discussion is not really about children. It is about adults: how we see each other, and how we see ourselves.

Much of this recent discussion has focused on the risk-aversion of those who organise activities for children – in particular, schools. The Children’s Society and Children’s Play Council are calling upon every council and school to carry out a ‘daisy chain audit’ to uncover the extent of restrictions upon children’s play.

As a result, the debate has been quickly polarised between parents and teachers. Children’s Play Council was careful not to have a go at teachers directly. However: ‘We are not pointing the finger of blame for a growing culture of caution at any one group, but individuals and organisations have an important role in making play exciting’, said Tim Gill (4).

Schools have hit back by pointing to the dangers they face from litigation, should an accident happen. ‘It is easy for those who do not bear the onerous responsibilities schools have for children’s safety to criticise them for responding in this way’, said Chris Keates, deputy general secretary of the NASUWT teachers’ union. Keates was careful not to have a go at parents directly: she pointed the finger at ‘the seemingly growing number of ambulance-chasing solicitors’, who ‘encourage parents to make claims for even the most minor incident’ (5).

The NASUWT has also raised its concerns about litigation in relation to school trips: and back in July 2001, it went so far as to advise teachers not to take part in such trips. ‘You’re on a loser to nothing’, said Nigel de Gruchy, then NASUWT general secretary. ‘Parents are increasingly reluctant to accept the concept of a genuine accident and in this suing culture, teachers are taking a huge risk by taking pupils abroad.’ (6)

The NASUWT’s concerns seem to be less about protecting children from danger than they are about protecting teachers from parents. Implicit in the discussion about litigation is the fear that parents do not trust public bodies with their kids, and that therefore public bodies cannot trust parents not to sue if something goes wrong. What is the basis of these fears?

It is true that we live in an increasingly litigious society, and that this often puts those responsible for children’s safety in a difficult position. And organisers of children’s activities often feel that they cannot do right for doing wrong. For example, in April 2002 a diabetic teenager won a landmark ruling in a case against Clitheroe Royal Grammar School. In February 2000, Tom White, who was 14 at the time, had gone on a school skiing trip in Austria, but collapsed with a hypoglycaemic attack. When the school subsequently refused to take him on a watersports holiday in France, he sued under the Disability Discrimination Act and won £3000 (7).

What a choice the school was faced with – to take White abroad and risk being sued over safety, or refuse to take him, and be sued for discrimination. Stories such as these must send shivers down the spine of anybody involved in organising children’s activities.

But there is something spineless about the way organisations like the NASUWT use fear of litigation as an excuse for failing to provide children with school trips – or even letting them enjoy everyday playground games. There are a few high-profile litigation cases – but most parents do not sue (8)

If teachers – and their professional representatives – really believed in the importance of school trips and children’s play, they would not be so easily cowed. This preoccupation with litigation looks more like a reluctance to take responsibility for any activity outside of the safe, sanitised world of the classroom.

And yet – is it fair that professional organisers of children’s activities should take all the flak? Since when have school trips or ‘adventure’ holidays been the only times children have had adventures and experiences, and since when have playgrounds been the only places they play? Surely, if children’s activities are being curtailed, parental over-caution must play some role in this.

That is true too. Besieged by warnings about their children’s safety, and the potential danger posed to their offspring by everything from strangers and cars to accidents and other children, parents are increasingly nervous about letting their children out of their sight – let alone allowing them to take risks. As a consequence, the climate surrounding children’s play is incredibly confused. At the same time as the importance of play and risk-taking is impressed upon parents, they are scared witless by the consequences of letting go.

So on 7 August, the BBC reports on the ‘right to play’ run alongside stories about the frightening disappearance of two 10-year-old girls in East Anglia. An article on BBC News titled ‘Is it safe to play?’ asks the question: ‘It’s National Playday – a day to celebrate the value of play. But has the plight of two missing 10-year-olds reawakened concerns among parents about letting children do their own thing?’ (9) But you can also engage in that day’s BBC News ‘Talking point’, titled: ‘Over cautious? Are schools right to restrict children’s play?’ (10)

No wonder parents are confused about which takes priority – their children’s safety, or their play. No wonder they increasingly find it hard to trust themselves to take that decision. And no wonder, really, that when it comes to allowing kids with that all-important sense of risk and challenge, many parents are tempted to pass the buck to schools and other organisations, who can be held to account when things go wrong.

Our over-cautious culture does not trust parents to make commonsense decisions about the level of risk to which their children should be exposed. As a consequence, parents find it hard to trust their own decisions. They pass these decisions over to public bodies – who trust neither themselves, nor the parents. It’s because adults do not trust each other that the girls and boys don’t come out to play.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Parents and kids

(1) Children’s ‘right to play’, BBC News, 7 August 2002

(2) Concerns over school trip guidance, BBC News, 6 August 2002

(3) The Times (London), 7 August 2002

(4) Children’s ‘right to play’, BBC News, 7 August 2002

(5) Children’s ‘right to play’, BBC News, 7 August 2002

(6) Teachers advised to boycott trips, BBC News, 26 July 2001

(7) ‘Holiday ban’ pupil wins damages, BBC News, 29 April 2002

(8) Children’s ‘right to play’, BBC News, 7 August 2002

(9) Is it safe to play?, BBC News, 7 August 2002

(10) Are schools right to restrict children’s play?, BBC News, 7 August 2002

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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