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Reflections Magazine : Reflections Magazine Issue 52
National guidance In Australia, official guidance on early learning supports the need for a thoughtful, balanced approach to risk and challenge.The National Quality Standard (NQS) states that environments should be "inclusive, and promote competence, independent exploration and learning through play"(Standard 3.2). In assessing against this standard, assessors are told they should discuss how educators "plan learning environments with appropriate levels of challenge where children are encouraged to explore, experiment and take appropriate risks in their learning"(Element 1.2.2). Other NQS sections underpin the need for a balanced approach. For example, under the standard for healthy eating and physical activity, providers are invited to ask themselves how they "encourage children to solve problems in relation to physical challenges in the environment" (Standard 2.2). What does a balanced approach look like? Let us come back to Jo and ask a key question: What is she getting out of that experience? The answer is that she is getting a great deal. Perhaps the most obvious benefit -- but in truth, amongst the least interesting -- is simple physical exercise. On top of working up a sweat, she is: • Building her gross and fine motor skills, and her awareness of her body and what it can do; • Boosting her self-confidence and sense of achievement; • Practicing real-time risk management at first hand; • Learning about her emotions and how far she is willing to go before her fears tell her to stop. Not forgetting the intrinsic thrill of defying gravity, and the sensory stimulation from feeling the bark beneath her hands and the wind in her hair. Having thought about the benefits, we can also ask: what are the risks? The most obvious is the risk of injury. How great is that risk? Not that great. Most children are well able to assess and manage risks like these for themselves -- and their competence and confidence are easy to spot. Indeed many children are better at climbing than we think they are. If Jo does make a mistake, in all likelihood the worst that could happen is some injured pride along with a bump and a bruise. Yes, if she is really unlucky, she could get a broken limb. But while this would definitely not be much fun, she would almost certainly make a full recovery in a few weeks, and be back climbing trees (probably with a little more care this time). Of course many educators are as worried about being blamed or sued as they are about injury. There is an important point here: the risks that should be our prime focus are surely those that concern the child. Yet it is the risks to adults -- loss of reputation, worries about liability -- that too often crowd our minds, and cloud our judgements. It can sometimes feel like we are devoting far more time to covering our backs -- through policies, guidelines and paper trails -- than to looking after children. We simply have to tackle this blame culture head-on, if we are to build a philosophy of resilience. This may seem a tall order. However, it can be achieved -- but only if we have a clear focus on the value of risk experiences, and their crucial role in helping children learn. What is more, as the quotes above show, national guidance provides ample hooks for doing this. Paranoid parents? When talking to professionals about risk, I am often told that parents are the biggest problem. This needs unpicking. Yes, there are some anxious parents out there. But there are also many parents who are fed up with the way that their children's sense of adventure and appetite for experience are being stifled. For every parent who wants to buy knee pads for their crawling baby, there is a mother like Lenore Skenazy: the New York journalist who found herself at the centre of a media storm after letting her nine-year-old son travel home on his own on the subway (and who created quite a stir when she visited Australia in 2012). She is now one of the leaders of a growing global movement to give children more everyday freedoms. Her book and blog Free Range Kids make a witty, intelligent case for her cause (and mine). The truth is that parents, like the rest of us, are on a continuum when it comes to attitudes to risk. The mistake so many settings make is that they think they have to set their benchmark at the level of the most anxious parent. So a single complaint about a piece of equipment leads to its removal. We need to take away that veto, and do more to help some parents understand why it is so important to give children a taste of adventure. The time is right to move beyond the blame culture. We need to reject the zero risk mindset, and recognise and promote the value of adventure and challenge in children's play and learning. We need to worry less about checklists and back-covering, and more about what will help the children we work with to develop their confidence, competence and resilience: to help get them ready for a world full of opportunities and challenges. Perhaps most important of all, we need to reflect on our own childhoods, and remind ourselves just what it felt like for Jo, when she climbed higher than she ever had before. Acknowledgement A longer version of this article was published in Early Years Update by Optimus Education. www.early-years-update.com Reference: Australian Children's Education & Care Quality Authority. (2011). Guide to the National Quality Standard. Commonwealth of Australia. REFLECTIONS • GOWRIE AUSTRALIA • SPRING 2013 - ISSUE 52 13
Reflections Magazine Issue 51
Reflections Magazine Issue 53 Summer 2013