Have you ever been told or heard of some thing that you may or may not do outside with children on the the grounds of health and safety? Has this made your stomach churn, out of guilt that you may have allowed this “forbidden” activity to happen despite there being no evidence that your children are using equipment or playing in an unsafe manner?
Or have you found yourself exclaiming, in a John McEnroe tone “Oh no, they cannot be serious!” when you’ve read another H&S circular about a routine or procedure that must be rigorously followed? A good example here, is the use of toilet tubes. In the UK, it is listed on the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) Myth of the Month page where it clearly states that it’s fine to use toilet tubes that have no clear visual contamination.
The aim of this discussion is have a practical look these matters. Please do pitch in… if we share, discuss and challenge assumptions, then our voices of reason will grow deeper and stronger. We need children to play and learn in environments that are as safe as necessary, not as safe as possible.
A useful statement from HSE on play and risk was published in 2012 called Children’s Play and Leisure: Promoting a Balanced Approach. The key message from this document is, “Play is great for children’s well-being and development. When planning and providing play opportunities, the goal is not to eliminate risk, but to weigh up the risks and benefits. No child will learn about risk if they are wrapped in cotton wool.”
Here’s some examples I’ve come across over the years which remind us that we still need to promote children’s right to challenging learning and play opportunities….
“Children may not be blindfolded…”
What would happen to so many sensory games and activities if we felt we couldn’t use blindfolds? I use fleece scarves which are warm and soft.
“We don’t let children go outside in icy weather…”
In winter, children will encounter ice. Learning how to manage this slippery surface is a life skill in Scotland. Hang on, don’t children ice skate and ski? So when one is on ice for a sporting reason, it’s OK? Even a sport which requires sharp blades, a fast moving puck and a stick in one’s hand whilst in a confined rink with 2 opposing teams? Hmm…
“Children can’t play with string because of H&S…”
This child is using string and soft wire. The manual dexterity skills are enhanced through using string in play. He’s using the string to hang “lights” in a den. Yes, that is a pair of wire cutters in his hands.
“If children play in soil they might get dirt underneath their fingernails, so our H&S manager does not allow this…”
At the nursery in the photo below, the teacher sensibly moved the plants and allowed the container to become a digging pit when children wanted to dig there. Since then, the children have become interested in planting, watering and root systems! It remains one of the most popular activities.
“We can’t use old tyres because of the metal wire in the rim…”
It’s always sensible to check and clean tyres before putting them into a play space. I’ve yet to encounter wire sticking out of the rim. Though I do know of one local authority that does not let its schools use them in case they get too hot in the Scottish summer heat (ahem)! For further advice and thoughts about tyres in schools, have a look at this blog post.
“We don’t let children sit on grass, anymore.”
I heard this from a scout leader. Her reasoning was around the risk from E.coli bacteria infection. If the children are in a soggy field surrounded by cow pats, I can understand her concerns. But good hand hygiene will mitigate this risk.
“We’ve removed all poisonous plants from our school grounds”
That’s a shame. What a missed learning opportunity. Have a look at this blog post and put most of them back. Many schools see the value of potentially harmful plants as a teaching tool in their own right.
“We sterilise leaves before we let the children play with them.”
The staff in this nursery did admit that this spoiled the leaves. They kept crumbling. Again, good hand hygiene practice will ensure this measure is not necessary.
“Children must wear cycle helmets when using trikes in our nursery. We have helmets that the children use.”
Many road safety officers worry about this particular measure. It is important for children to understand the reasons for wearing cycle helmets. However, helmets have to be properly fitted. Otherwise they are of limited value and send the wrong message to children. So if every child has their own helmet, clearly labelled and properly fitted, it’s fine. If this isn’t the situation, settings may as well not bother!” Ouch!
“Drawstring bags are not allowed. There’s a risk that children could be strangled.”
Yes this is a risk. It might happen. In my experience, most children have more sense. A wee talk about appropriate use of a bag can help along with supervision and sensible behaviour expectations in a class.
“Health and Safety Bans Bunting”
This was the HSE Myth of the Month in August 2009. The Health and Safety Executive are not “Bunting Busters”. This organisation likes seeing people celebrate in style!
“You have to be Forest School trained to take school children into a wood.”
Er, no! Forest School training is a specific pedagogical approach. Lily Horseman has a lovely article about the benefits of undertaking this training in her Kindling blog. You should, out of respect, avoid calling woodland visits “Forest School” unless you are a trained Forest School leader using the approach in a series of carefully planned visits.
One interesting fact that I have discovered whilst interviewing staff who take children to their local woods for learning and play, is that accidents happen less often in the woods than back in the playground. One Primary 6 child summed it up nicely:
“If you trip on tarmac, you scrape your knees and it really hurts. If you fall over a branch the woods, you land on leaves.”
“My child has to wear lab safety goggles when using chalk in the school playground”
I never found out why this was the situation and I’m a little surprised that a dust mask was not needed either. I suppose the school budget didn’t extend to oxygen masks and chemical warfare clothing.
“All sand pits need a cover.”
This myth is particularly widespread. Throughout the UK sand is used as a safety surface in playgrounds and is left uncovered. Sandpits do require a bit of looking after but a cover is not always necessary. Have a look at this blog post and this one for more information about sand in schools and homes.
What do you think? Fair or fake reasons? Practical ways forward?
This blog post is an amalgamation of a couple I wrote three and four years ago. Since then, the Health and Safety Executive in the UK has stopped publishing their “Myth of the Month” series. Instead they now how have a Challenge Panel which is “a mechanism to independently challenge potentially disproportionate or inaccurate advice or decisions made in the name of health and safety.” You can find out more and see what investigations have taken place.