At the weekend I made a rare appearance at a social do. I knew the food would be delicious and the company fine, so I persuaded my husband and son that this would be a Good Thing to Do as a Family.

When making small talk as such events, people inevitably make a polite enquiry as to what I do for a living. When I state that I am an outdoor learning consultant, this inevitably results in a pregnant pause of confusion. Then the person asks if this involves team building outdoors for oil companies on a jolly away from the office. It doesn’t. I have to confess that I work with children or people who work with children. My mission-vision-hallucination statement is simply to increase the quantity and quality of time children spend learning outdoors during school hours.

Miraculously, the person I was talking with stayed and continued the conversation instead of retreating to the kitchen for another Budweiser. The chat moved naturally into health and safety which seems to be a common bond between going outside with children and oil workers. My husband, who is a forester, joined in. This is also a hot topic in the world of hot logging (where you get trees cut, stacked, removed and on a boat to Finland within 2 days).

It turns out that oil companies have once again taken health and safety levels of consciousness to new heights. In climbing terms, they are French 9b rock jocks. Schools seem positively dangerous places in comparison to an oil office. Every meeting begins with a “Safety Moment” where the Chairperson gives a “Thought for the Day” on a particular health and safety theme, regardless of its relevance to proceedings.

No hot drink may be carried without a lid. And, if you are caught running up or downstairs, those in promoted positions have been told to admonish you. If you run up the stairs, two at a time and without holding the handrail, you may receive an official conduct warning. Middle managers may also be giving a verbal warning if they are seen to ignore such dangerous behaviour. The official reason for this seems to be that if managers do not confront their workers on minor health and safety matters, then the chances are they will be unable to do this when it really counts.

All this seems a far cry from schools and nurseries, where research overwhelmingly demonstrates that children need to learn to take risks, manage risks and accept responsibility for these risks. Grahn et al (1997) undertook a year-long comparative study of two nurseries, one an outdoor nursery where children spend 80% of their time outside, mostly in woodland areas. One of the most significant conclusions that came from this research was that children need uneven surfaces in order to develop their physical abilities. They have to learn to balance and deal with slips and trips. Practitioners are beginning to understand that we need to be making children’s lives as safe as necessary rather than as safe as possible.

Should I ever venture into an oil company office, I will bring some bubble wrap just in case I meet a thrill seeker running down stairs two at a time with a drink in her hand.

Grahn, P., Martensson, F., Lindblad, B., Nilsson, P., & Ekman, A. (1997) Ute på Dagis Stad and Land 145. Håssleholm, Sweden: Nora Skåne Offset.

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