Friday, 17 January 2014

Thoughts based on a tragedy...


Marc Armitage linked the story of a three year old child that had died at her preschool entangled in a rope on the slide...here is the link and the comments from others about that link...
Here is a link to the story in The Guardian that Marc had linked and the same story as it continues in the York Press the local newspaper where it happened... it also happens to be my hometown. (York Press - more)

Marc then linked the story onto his personal FB page and there were yet more comments - but what struck me about the comments was the focus that teachers/adults are observing the children to prevent accidents and bullying.. but then Krister Svensson wrote something that really resonated with me... 


"Two small comments, after have been working with safety in preschools and schools for more than 30 years, in Sweden. Staff needs more and relevant education how to organize, both indoor and outdoor activities from as safety perspective. Secondly, I think it is time to stop repeating the mantra that children need to take risks for their development. There is no research that supports that position. I would like to suggest that we talk about children taking chances instead. Child development, in itself, strives for a positive outcome of an activity, not a negative.
However, we put children at risk, that they can’t, or have no reason, to calculate! This is the issue!"


  This comment was rebuked in the sense that taking chances/calculated risk is one and the same thing... this made me comment too... and here is my response...

"BUT semantics ARE important... they can change a whole mind set and how we meet the child... I like the idea of changing the word from risk to chance... the chance to succeed, the chance to learn... rather than the risk to fail...even though it is the same thing as the cup being half full or half empty there is an OBVIOUS attidtude difference... like the change in Reggio Emilia from the word that children can have special needs to having special rights... the right to the support they need...

As for the incident... well as someone that is from York but works in Sweden in preschools (and have observed preschools/nurseries in York) my gut reaction that this is a natural consequence of having too many boxes to tick... if you are spending so much time checking off boxes then you are not actually using that time to reflect on how the setting is being used and if there ARE areas of genuine risk... a hanging rope can be a wonderful thing... and there are many places that have them and use them and leave them daily without anyone considering them being a problem...


Yes, we do risk assessments here in Sweden but not on the scale that they are done in the UK which I felt made them something that was done by rote rather than with thought... maybe a very dangerous thing when there is a high number of staff that do not have the training and education to support them in their work...

I have worked at preschools here where I have felt frustration by colleagues who sit at the picnic table the whole time... for me it's not so much about being close to the children in case they might be at risk, or because I have to teach them or to direct their play... but so that I can listen and observe THEIR play - so that
I can learn more about the children... how THEY use the play equipment and how I can support the children in their continued development... this means I can appropriately challenge them... this can not be done from the picnic table...

BUT as we do not know the whole circumstances one cannot truly say that this is the norm at this preschool, of course... BUT it is a wake up call for all teachers... NOT that we should be guarding the children from "what if..." moments... not having to spend time "checking off boxes..." that says on paper that the preschool is safe without actually understanding or reflecting on what the questions to those boxes mean in practice...

maybe there should be more education on taking chances... on how we can support the children's development and their ability to make risk assessment... "is this a too big risk for me to take?" - I also think that so many parents lift up their children onto play equipment etc without thinking that they are never letting their children experience frustration or understand the risk/the chances that they are taking... which also means that children are more fearless and therefore in greater need of being protected by adults which means there is a negative spiral where children are made less competent because adults are so afraid of their child's frustration and that it makes them unhappy for a few moments... oh this could open a lots of questions and possibilties to reflect upon... hope they do open the right ones..."


 It really has got me thinking about risk/taking chances... and the reason why it can feel such a hard thing to do as a preschool teacher - and much easier to do at home... I really KNOW my children... I have been with two of them for 13 years and the other for soon 10 years... I have watched them grow and develop seven days a week and received feedback from their time at preschool and now school for the time I am not with them. I have encouraged them to take chances... chances based on my knowledge of them as individuals, their skills, their willingness to try things they might fail at, their agility, their motor skills, their ability to communicate their fear and anxiety and their joy!
At preschool I take care of considerably more children that I have known for a year of their 3-5 year old lives - I see them for part of the day for up to five days a week, and not the entire year... after summer I have to spend time again to catch up with where they are in their development and ensure that the learning, the play and the activities are based at the right level for all these unique individuals... which might mean that sometimes children are exposed to things that are just too easy and others it is a little beyond them... for no matter how hard we work at creating a curriculum to meet each child's individual needs, we simply do not have the adult child ratio of the typical Swedish family. It CAN mean that if we are busy meeting the needs of a child that has fallen down and hurt themselves that suddenly they are a group of children that are not under full observation for the time it takes for that child to recover... even if we do know WHERE they are they are NOT under that quality of observation that can guarentee that no accidents can happen..
having watched how the children had been sliding down safely, and knowing that this is a slide all the children were VERY familiar with, this was NOT the expected exit of the slide. My heart left my body for a while... even though I was VERY close there was no way that I could have prevented this... luckily the child laughed hystericall and repeated the flying exit three more times, despite me warning her that she would fly again.. BUT that turned out to be her aim... it still scared the living daylights out of me!

Of course accidents WILL happen, and as we have seen in York, tragic accidents can happen too. What we need to do is to empower children to learn how to use equipment properly and to be aware of the risks... if we are always micromanaging their risk then what are the chances of them comprehending it themselves?

If so many parents are more focussed on ensuring their child is HAPPY at the play-space/playground than allowing them to take the opportunity to climb up on what is appropriate for their own devlopment ... or to take the time to allow the child to experience a little fear and verbally guide them back down rather than lifting them down and hugging the learning opportunity away...

PARENTS have the BEST opportunity to give this gift of taking chances and learning risk assessment, realising fears and knowing when to listen to them... and therefore allow their child to be competent. The longer we focus on their constant state of happiness the more the children will be dependant on us and the more we put children at risk...

I have seen it over the years at ALL of the preschool I have ever worked at here in Stockholm - how children are delivered to preschool in pushchairs up until the age of five... then the parents expect us to go on excursions with this group of children who have no idea of how to walk, no idea about road safety (as they are chauffeured everywhere) and have absolutely no idea about pavement etiquette and safety (they will try and walk through people - and the number of times I have to call out "lamp-post lamp-post watch out for the lamp-post" - well put it this way if I was paid 10kronor for every time I said it I would be VERY VERY rich now!!)

Ellen and I have talked about taking up the idea of risk/risk assessment with the parents of the children in our care... to find out what THEY think about all of this. To find out what kind of expectations they have of the care that we give the children... is it OK with them that they get the odd scratch and bruise from accidents and conflicts with friends (as risk assessment must also be social - how far can you push a person before they retaliate?...and HOW will they retaliate?) - where is the line for too much risk?

I am one for taking chances rather than risk so that the children can obtain a healthy ability to make risk assessments... I think its why Krister Svensson's word resonated with me so much... 
The thing is, even with calculated risk, there is always the chance of miscalculation... and I think that is important to remember... so that when things don't go to plan we are not fast with our fingers pointing out failure of reasonable care...

My daughter fractured both her arms last year (in two different months) ice-skating... does this mean I need to stop her from skating to prevent that risk... for two consecutive years my other daughter flipped on her ski's resulting in head injuries... the second one taking three months to fully recover and two rather stressful visits to hospital when things were not quite as they should have been..... does this mean that we should prevent her from ski-ing again. My son slipped on the snow and ice when playing and resulted in a cut just above his eye, does this mean snow is too dangerous to play in?

Of course we have to be sensible about all this... not to ignore patterns for obvious risk... but also not to be over protective either... it is no easy balance to find in a preschool setting... I find it personally a struggle to find that balance between giving the children freedom to take chances and my own desire to wrap them in cotton wool and keep them safe from harm and hurt... I also hate feeling mean when I say, no I won't lift you up, but i can show you haw it can be done... but the reward IS the joy and pride of the children when the success is their own...

There is sadness indeed when a child dies, any child, in any situation. And tragic accidents make many questions rise to the surface... which can be a very good thing... as long as we answer them with reason and not emotion...

6 comments:

  1. Hi Suzanne,
    This was such a thoughtful and well written article that does make one ponder the concept of risk and taking chances. I haven't read about the tragedy but from reading your article, it sounds like it has caused folks to really stop and reflect on their opinions, views, strategies, planning, training, and decision-making when it comes to providing a safe play environment and at the same time, a challenging environment. Perhaps another word to consider instead of taking chances or risk is simply building competence. We have all kinds of natural obstacles that surround my preschool environment and I have seen first hand how unprepared many of my students are for these obstacles when they come into my program but under my safe watch and with time, I also get to see my students build competent abilities to tackle the first obstacles and then move on to the next.

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    1. Yes, I agree Deborah, competence is an incredibly important word and an important gift/skill to give children...
      I very much believe in the competent child... but over the years I feel I am seeing more and more children becoming dependant on adults despite the awareness of our need to support their feeling of compentency...

      I have been reflecting upon this often and I am feeling more and more that it is the desperate need to make our children happy that is robbing them of their ability to be competent...

      No doubt I will be reflecting more during the week again about what IS a competent child, what does that really mean and how can we as adults scaffold that...?

      Thank you so much for your feedback...

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  2. Hi Suzanne, I think you're absolutely right that the 'picking' the child up onto the higher section definitely robs them of opportunities to gain vital skills and deal with other emotions in an appropriate manner. It is a fine line that we walk when supporting children to experience all that they can in a safe yet sufficiently challenging environment/situation. Prof Tanya Byron suggests we are raising children 'in captivity' and to allow them a full, rich and exciting learning experience we need to reflect upon those words because that's a dangerous thing to do. We need to remember in order to help children to grow and develop into confident, grounded individuals they need to problem solve, negotiate situations and sometimes that means not succeeding first time but going back for another go and another go before we get it right. Thanks Elaine

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    1. thank you so much for your feedback Elaine.
      When I was talking with my husband last night about this post I was using the words "institutionalised" because whatever we might feel about preschool (I love my work there) we are still institutionalising childhood from a very very young age... and no matter how hard we strive to make the time at preschool suitable for each individual it is an almost impossible thing to do (as much as we would like)

      I wish there were more adults to allow the individual needs of the children to be met... or an understanding that the preschool/nursery environment is a compliment to the home - and that we are unable to give the attention to the children that they would get there... but that they would get inspiration and challneges in other areas instead...

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  3. This is such a sad situation, but you have really provided some insightful reflections here. I struggle with the balance of safety and "risky" play as a Pre-K teacher. There are a lot of factors in play. I know I am attentive to the kids, but can I be assured that every other adult supervising is as attentively as I am? What about those moments you mentioned above--those moments when a child is hurt or needs my direct attention? What happens if something happens to one of the other children while I am looking at/helping that one student in need? It's a lot to think about, and some of the factors every good teacher/adult supervising children at play must consider and weigh. Thank you for providing some real "food for thought".

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    1. I agree, it IS a contant struggle to challenge children and keep them safe at the same time... AND more difficult when they are other people's children... there always feels a need to be extra careful instead, so i can hand them back at the end of the day without scratches and bruises.. even though I know that scratches and bruises are a natural part of growing up...

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