Health and Safety: Have you heard the latest…?

18 March 2014 · 19 comments

in Health & Wellbeing, Interesting Issues & Hot Topics, Whole School

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.

Got a sandpit? Why not add a few natural loose parts?

Got a sandpit? Why not add a few natural loose parts?


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.

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{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

Annicles May 29, 2010 at 16:42

We assess on a situational basis. Using a length of rope in a construction is fine, stretching it across the playground is not! We use common sense and pretty much pretend that H and S doesn’t exist. We do safety checks on everything and monitor all the materials on a daily basis. Safe enough sounds perfect. And I’ve heard those Scottish Summers are HOT!!


Teacher Tom May 29, 2010 at 23:23

I always tell the adults with whom I work that our most effective safety tools are our own eyes, hands, and judgment. Black and white rules are about liability, not education. Knives, hammers, ropes, etc. are common tools, found in every home. Our job isn’t to avoid these things, but to TEACH children how to use them safely.

I’ve been teaching 3-5-year-olds how to handle tools this year and last week I sent 11 children off into the world who can hammer nails, saw wood, and use hot glue guns. This summer I’m going to be putting these things into the hands of children as young as 2-year-olds. They are going to get hurt (like we all do when learning new things, no matter what our age) but they will learn how to use these tools so that they don’t get hurt again. To my mind, this is the surest way to keep children safe.

Children with experience can do a lot of their own risk assessment.


jenny May 30, 2010 at 08:21

Oh my, they’d close down our preschool (especially with the kids’ recent obsession with string and rope)!

And what Tom said.

We are constantly evaluating and asking ourselves “should we be worried about this?” So many valuable learning opportunities would be lost through over vigiliance. I want to help to build resiliant, competent little human beings who have a positive assessment of their own abilities and I don’t think this can be achieved if we remove all risk.

I recently read that natural playgrounds aren’t just about adding natural elements – they are about adding elements of risk as well. I’ve been thinking of this a lot lately.


Gwynneth Beasley May 30, 2010 at 08:28

Good grief! I get annoyed when my son comes home from school too clean – its the sign of a boring day!


little May 30, 2010 at 11:40

Way over here the tyres are a haven for snakes, but they’re still in the garden. The centre I work in is close to the bush that snakes, spiders, lizards and scorpions are daily visitors. Yet the authorities on their last visit were concerned that the easels were too dirty with paint and the crash mat had perished corners.
Every day I fight for the children’s right to go outside. “It’s too hot” How will children learn to pace themselves in 38 degrees? “It’s too cold” Can 14 degrees kill you? “It’s too wet” It’s only water. Will eating possum poo really make them sick? They’ll spit it out!
Obviously we know the risks and assess them daily but I’m not so sure that ‘common sense’ is as prevalent as you think either.
I trust that children will test and find their own limits and that they’re much better at assessing the risks than a government authority.
The contradictions and ‘dangers’ are endless but how do we build competent risk takers without them. Wasn’t the best fun we ever had the stuff we knew had an edge of danger?
And painting the tyres white stops them getting too hot….and makes it easier to spot the snakes.


Juliet Robertson May 30, 2010 at 14:01

Hi Everyone

Big thanks for the international opinion! I still wonder why Britain, where the number of dangerous plant and animal species are negligible, has the most rigorous interpretation of H&S than anywhere else in Europe…yet it’s the same laws!

When I visited Sweden, the staff who worked in outdoor pre-schools were baffled by our British obsession with assessing risk and encouraging children to do the same. Common sense seemed much more prevalent.

Anyone ever heard a woodland being described as a high risk environment?


Juliet Robertson May 31, 2010 at 19:24

Hi Everyone

I have to flag up Teacher Tom’s super post about H&S matters. Have a look


jenny June 1, 2010 at 02:26

Like “Little”, we are aware that we can get creepy crawlies like spiders under the rims of our tyres, but we paint them with white paint inside to deter them.


Sherry and Donna June 1, 2010 at 09:02

Clearly the people making these health and safety decisions don’t work with children and it sounds like they don’t remember what childhood was like either. How will our children learn to make good decisions, assess risk and learn right from wrong if we wrap them up in cotton wool! The greatest gift we can give our children is resilience and the only way we can do that is to give them room to fail, get hurt, experience disappointment, make their own decisions and learn all about cause and effect. Children will never learn what is safe or not until they have the opportunity to experience the risks.
Donna 🙂 🙂


Debi June 2, 2010 at 17:05

Folks in the U.S. are pretty crazy about health & safety concerns, too. I’m with Gwynneth on this one — if my kid comes home from school too clean I tell him he didn’t play enough! As a mom, I teach common sense & safety first to my kids, then let them learn by doing. It’s much more effective than telling them what not to do!


Malin September 3, 2011 at 18:56

Little – here in Sweden 14 degrees is considered to be a ”nice” spring or fall day…: D The only time we don’t go out to play for long is when it comes down to -20 or lower!

Juliet – you actually don’t have to be working in an outdoor pre-school to be baffled. I work at a “regular” preschool in Sweden I’m still finding all your risk assessment unbelievable. Granted we still spend at least a few hours outside every day even though we are a “regular” preschool.


Juliet Robertson September 3, 2011 at 19:04

Hello Malin

Thanks so much for your comments. I’m pleased you are baffled too – the reason I specifically mentioned outdoor pre-school staff was because of an evening I spend in a seminar with them where the matter was discussed.

I’m pleased you pointed out that regular pre-schools in Sweden spend lots of time outside too. In fact there was one instance where I was in a wood with an I Ur och Skur pre-school and another one, and I couldn’t tell the difference! There is definitely a more healthy culture of common sense in Sweden.


Malin September 3, 2011 at 19:49

Thank you Juliet!

Like I wrote in another blog the other day (I’ve been reading several lately looking for new ideas…) I think we all have very different conditions to start out with depending on country and culture, but that we all have our pros and cons. And that we all have things lo learn from one other.

For me as a teacher I know I bring parts of my parent’s upbringing and my schooling with me every day when I work. In other words, my inherited culture which I pass on to the children I work with. My father always used to say that it’s easier to stich a cut that’s been made with a sharp knife than a blunt one, when asked why he let my sister and I use real tools when we were kids. What he meant was that if you always trying to protect someone from something that MIGHT happen they will end up hurting themselves because they’ve never had the chance to try on their own in a controlled situation. He believed my sister and I was capable of handling the tools and therefor showed us how to do it and then trusted us to use them. And we did! And I still have all my fingers left…

And that’s something a take with me every day, the belief in children’s capability and competence, and the importance of introduction. If a child is introduced to an activity, either by an adult or another child, and then trusted to try it without someone hovering over them controlling I think the child’s confidence will grow. I’m not saying the adults should turn their backs and let the children run free, I’m just saying that I believe in staying back and letting the children try for themselves first. And that all adults recognize that sometimes the children have better ways of doing things than we have!


Juliet Robertson September 3, 2011 at 20:20

Thank you Malin for taking the time to add such a thoughtful contribution. If you haven’t had a look, then sift through Teacher Tom’s blog – there’s a lot of creative ideas and he also understands the need for children to learn experientially about the risks involved in tool use and more.

I’d also recommend looking at Tim Gill’s blog, Rethinking Childhood. You won’t get practical ideas but he has some really informative posts and is receptive to comments 🙂


Juliet Robertson September 3, 2011 at 20:25

Hi Malin

If you are on Facebook, feel free to visit the Creative STAR page or my own profile – sometimes it’s good to know who’s out there for support, ideas and advice – I get the feeling you’ve as much to offer as to take!


Kristin November 21, 2011 at 05:17

We have a motto at our school: “As safe as necessary…not as safe as possible.”

Children need to experience some risk in order to develop self-esteem, motor skills, and confidence. A lack of any of this can potentially cause more harm when the child is exposed to risk. Thanks for the post!


siamese July 22, 2012 at 11:26

I can understand that SOME people might think that bieng blind folded and playing with rope is unsafe, but banning kids from digging incase they get dirt under their fingernails?!!
Has the world gone mad? The kids aren’t going to DIE from dirty fingernails!!!


Matt Robinson May 20, 2016 at 16:31


Oddly, one of the fun bits of my job at the moment is digging down and being able to challenge, refute or support changes in attitudes towards risk and challenge.

I have a few crackers, some as recently as this week.

What I find is that most decisions that I want to challenge or refute are taken due to rumor or courses a few years back. We need to support head of settings and staff to make thier own, informed decisions, within robust and reasoned risk assessments.

I also find many overly cautious decisions are not ‘owned’ – they are not recorded on paper, and often folk distance themselves from having made the or gone along with them.

Liability or fear of complaints are also covered by the misuse of the phrase ‘health and safety’. If we can distill out what the underlying concern is, we can address it more clearly.

The best question to ask when face with a decision we want to query is ‘show me the paperwork’. I have a few examples, one being Mandy at Mudpies rope swings, of when ‘absolute’ and ‘policy’ is based on rumor or unsubstantiated decisions.



Juliet Robertson May 20, 2016 at 16:40

Thanks for your thoughts Matt.


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