The Health and Safety Excuse; another restriction to children’s play

May 14, 2013

There is a care home on our route home from school. They have large gardens, and a pair of gardeners visit every week. On the very edge of the garden, against the low wall, they have created a heap of leaves, grass and hedge cuttings.

queen of the worldMy child has found that by climbing onto the wall, which is about two feet high, he can then step onto this pile of cuttings and climb to the top of it. It has become one of his rituals on the route home from school, along with climbing on another higher wall to get behind a large cable box and sell imaginary ice creams.

With Spring finally upon us, he has been delighted to find his ‘mountain’ of cuttings has grown considerably, and continues to do so each week. Not a naturally confident climber, he is very pleased with himself when he reaches the top.

“Look at me Mummy, I’m a mountain climber”.

On a recent occasion, he had just descended from his mountain and was standing on the wall next to me, when two workers from the care home approached us.

“You alright?” one of them asked.

I interpreted this as a polite way of saying “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” but responded literally,

“We’re fine thanks. He likes climbing up this pile of cuttings.”

“Well be careful because we can get in trouble with Health & Safety” she responded.


“It’s OK, I’m watching him”. Hopefully they interpreted this as it was meant; a polite way of saying, “Piss off and stop making a fuss, I’m his mother and have decided the risk is minimal, he’s just a child playing, and I have no intention of asking him to climb down”.

Now technically, it’s their wall, and the pile of cuttings is on their property, so they could quite legitimately ask me to prevent my child climbing on either, on these grounds. This, I think, would be pretty mean-spirited of them, and perhaps it was a consciousness of this that led them to try to hide behind ‘Health & Safety”. Or was their response just typical of the wider attitude these days? And that’s what really bugged me about the incident.

Would everyone please stop using Health and Safety as an excuse for placing unnecessary restrictions on children’s freedom to play?

My childhood was spent climbing goodness knows how many walls, trees, piles of cuttings, sand, gravel. Everything was a playground; I can’t recall any incidents of being reprimanded for climbing on someone else’s wall or pile. Such pettiness didn’t seem to exist then. So where is it coming from?

Is it because the norm is now for children to be protected from the tiniest risk, so it’s no longer common place for them to be seen climbing on walls or piles of cuttings? Because it’s not just organisations themselves waving the Health and Safety banner; parents seem to have picked up on this drift and are saying no to anything that might lead to the tiniest bump or scratch. Yet, in doing so, we deprive our children of the opportunity to learn about risk, to test their abilities, to use their imaginations, to have fun, to play, to be children.

Here’s an extract from a statement issued by the Health and Safety Executive last September,

Key message: ‘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’.

HSE fully recognises that play brings the world to life for children. It provides for an exploration and understanding of their abilities; helps them to learn and develop; and exposes them to the realities of the world in which they will live, which is a world not free from risk but rather one where risk is ever-present. The opportunity for play develops a child’s risk awareness and prepares them for their future lives.

….Key message: ‘Accidents and mistakes happen during play – but fear of litigation and prosecution has been blown out of proportion.’”

Yes, that’s right. This is from the HSE. So there’s really no excuse for hiding behind Health and Safety.

I wonder if those workers from the care home have asked the gardeners not to block the pavement with their car, causing my child and I, and others walking home from school with small children, to have to walk on the road; a considerably more prominent risk to safety and breach of the law than a child climbing up a pile of leaves and twigs? But no, of course they haven’t. Because they’re not really concerned with Health and Safety. Their response was just a response to today’s trend – children are no longer permitted to climb on walls or anything else. It’s just not the done thing anymore, except, it seems, by radicals like me. And that’s very sad.


5 tips for facilitating free play

February 28, 2013

Girl jumping over boyFree play isn’t just beneficial or important, it’s essential. It allows children the opportunity to learn by exploring the world around them, to use their imaginations and creativity, and to develop social skills and emotional resilience through their interactions with other children.

But in order for children to reap the rewards of free play, adults need to know how to facilitate it. There are the obvious things like placing restrictions on screen time, and not over-scheduling our children’s lives into organised, adult-led activities. But there are also the less obvious things.

Here are some of my suggestions.

Don’t interrupt

Let sleeping dogs lie. Let happy children play. Whether playing alone or with other children, if they’re busy, leave them be whenever possible. Very young children will develop their ability to focus on things for longer. Older children engrossed in a game clearly don’t need our input. If we have something we want them to do, can it wait until later? Be flexible.

Don’t make suggestions

My child never does anything I suggest. He will go out of his way not to. Everything must be done his way. I think he’s a bit of a chronic case, but the principle still holds: children like to come up with their own ideas and invent their own games. We need to trust in their ability to do this.

Having said this, I do sometimes subtly leave things lying around that I think my child might play with when he sees them. Often I keep packaging like bubble wrap, polystyrene, or cardboard boxes. Once I gave my child and his friends some carpet off-cuts. But I didn’t make any suggestions as to what they should do with them….

Don’t over-direct or micro-manage

Free play means free of adult direction. Butt out. Let the children make up their own games, their own rules, and come up with their own solutions to problems. They can do it! Occasionally an adult does need to intervene, especially where younger children are involved. Perhaps the children need reminding to make sure everyone gets a turn, perhaps feelings are running high and a situation needs defusing. But give them the chance to resolve things on their own first. Every time we step in we deprive kids of the opportunity to exercise their judgement, their ability to come up with ideas, to manage conflict, and to just, well, play on their own, which is kind of the whole point.

Don’t stress

Allow some risk taking. Children will only learn to manage risk by experiencing some level of risk. Again, we need to trust them to use their judgement, and use ours a little more when it comes to deciding if it’s really necessary to step in or to restrict something. Our risk-averse culture prompts us to step in far too often.

Allow play fighting. Whether wrestling or playing with pretend weapons, we really need to get over it. It’s normal. Trying to ban it is a mistake. Wrestling kids probably will take the occasional bump, but it’s unlikely to lead to death or hospitalisation. Remind them of some basic rules if you must, like no biting or kicking. Observe the play closely. As long as both children are happy, both are willing participants, and the stronger child is holding back some strength, then all is as it should be.

Allow kids to get dirty

When we dress ourselves in the morning we choose our clothes based on what we’re planning to do that day. Don’t we? So if we’re going to do some decorating or gardening we don’t put on our best suit or dress.

Kids are probably planning to play most days. So dress them for it, and don’t stress about it when they get dirty. More importantly don’t project your stress about it onto your child. Children need to be free to explore and have fun uninhibited by concerns over their clothes or appearance. This is childhood. Adulthood comes later.

“The very existence of youth is due in part to the necessity for play; the animal does not play because he is young, he has a period of youth because he must play.” Karl Groos

Toys for Christmas?

November 7, 2012

I have just read this article in the Guardian. Apparently the Toy Retailers Association have come up with a top 13 list of toys. The article implies that it is in fact a list of ‘must have’ toys to buy our children for Christmas this year. Given the timing of the list, this seems quite plausible, and a quick Google search brings up umpteen other articles on the same topic and with the same angle, including one that has appeared on children’s television channel CBBC’s website.

It seems that not only are adults being told what to buy for their children, but children are being told what to want. How many adults will fall for this blatant commercial manipulation? If this article‘s anything to go by, quite a lot. It reports that according to research by the Mothers’ Union, 72% of parents admit to buying gifts they can’t really afford, 46% have got into financial difficulty or debt in order to buy Christmas presents, and 59% admit to buying presents they didn’t consider age-appropriate.

For the last five years now I’ve found myself frequently asked the question, in the run up to Christmas, “What are you buying your child for Christmas?” My answer has always been vague and evasive, because (and here my secret is out) the answer is, very little, if anything. Here’s why:

a) He will gets loads of gifts from grandparents, aunties, and uncles, and he won’t know that none of them are from me, because he thinks they’re all from Santa anyway.

And I don’t feel in the least bit guilty about this. It’s not like I never buy him anything.  Why wait until Christmas? I don’t get extra pay at Christmas or anything. And I don’t use Christmas as a bribe or a threat. My child doesn’t have to earn things. The idea that I must buy him heaps of things at Christmas means I must either hold off buying things in order to store things up to add to an already large pile of presents at a particular time of year, or, if as I do, I buy him things as and when he grows out of something or I feel he needs or would benefit from something, I must then buy him other things at Christmas which he doesn’t really need. I don’t get it.

b) He won’t have any of the above ‘top 13’ toys or other demands for particular toys on his list because he never watches TV commercials.

Children only expect what they’re led to expect. I ‘ve often found the smallest and simplest presents have been his favourites.

c) There are very few toys he actually plays with anyway.

Really. It’s taken me a few years to finally grasp this, but he doesn’t. For years he’s had a load of toys in the house he’s hardly touched. I sold some of them at last month’s NCT sale and he still hasn’t noticed they’ve gone.

He just plays with, well, stuff. If he’s playing at cooking he plays with the real crockery and utensils in the kitchen. Forget all that plastic rubbish I bought when trying to create a ‘home corner’. He ‘goes shopping’ with real shopping bags and food from the food cupboard. He makes miniature ‘soups’ with various ingredients donated by his father while he’s cooking. He makes all sorts of imaginary things outside in his messy play area. He invents things out of cardboard packaging. He and his friends make dens with old blankets and cushions. Right now he’s obsessed with football, and will play imaginary matches with commentary. If no balls are immediately available, he uses anything kick-able.

When he was younger he liked taking random things out of drawers and playing with them. (actually he still does) . He had a great time with the tape measure. I once found him playing with a roll of Sellotape. I took it off him, telling him it wasn’t a toy and we needed to save it for when it was needed. Later I thought how ridiculous that was. I’ll buy him toys, but I can’t stretch to an extra roll of Sellotape?!

The thing is, kids have great imaginations, and a great capacity to create play out of raw materials. Plus this makes for a good type of play that’s most beneficial to their development. Many commercial toys do all their thinking for them, and limit them to playing in certain ways. Hi-tech toys do not encourage creativity or leave room for a child’s imagination to get to work. A toy gun can only ever be a gun. A stick could be a gun, then later a fishing rod. Children with large numbers of toys will flit from one to the next, without spending much time on any, making for short attention spans.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t buy any toys, or that my child doesn’t have anything to play with. He has bats and balls, a scooter and bike, lego, drawing materials, a collection of toy cars picked up in charity shops, a dressing up box, a much used sand and water tray, for example. I’m just saying our approach to children’s Christmas gift buying, and toy buying generally, is worth thinking twice about. We often hear the complaint that a small child is more interested in the packaging than the actual toy. This is telling us something. Let’s take note, and send the media and the TRA packing.

Advocating for children’s play – away from TV screens

October 12, 2012

An open letter to the manager of David Lloyd Leisure.

Dear Manager,

When the excellent new children’s area opened at my local David Lloyd club over a year ago, I wrote to you remarking that I felt the area was very much spoilt by the presence of television screens, and requesting that their inclusion be reconsidered. I pointed out that there were no other soft play facilities in the city, that I am aware of, that have TV screens, and that I felt their presence was disruptive to the children’s play.

Your response reported that the TVs had received ‘mixed reviews’ from parents, but that some liked having them there.

Over the last 18 months I have used this facility regularly. My child very much enjoys the time he spends there – it has become familiar to him, as have the staff, and other children who go there regularly, making him feel comfortable and relaxed there and able to enjoy all it has to offer. As well as taking part in some of the organised activities, he very  much likes spending time in the play area with other children. He is an only child, and this social aspect of the club is of great benefit to him.

However, I have repeatedly observed during our visits there, the negative effect of the TV screens on this social aspect of the children’s play. One of the screens is visible from all angles of the main play area, including from the soft play structure. On every visit, I have observed how these screens distract from and interfere with the children’s play. Their attention is repeatedly drawn towards the screen. Some children are unable to draw themselves away from it, and end up leaving off their play with the other children to sit in the play structure staring at the screen, despite being often unable to hear the sound. Those children who are able to re-focus their attention away from the screen do so only to have it drawn back at frequent and regular intervals. This is disruptive to the flow of their play and their thoughts.

If you observe the children’s play closely enough you will see that they are doing more than simply enjoying the physical aspects of the climbing structure and slide. They are often engaged in some sort of imaginative, creative, make believe play. They devise their own rules and roles, negotiate and interact with each other, create fantasies. This type of play is extremely beneficial to children, yet sadly something for which there are fewer opportunities today, with the introduction of homework at younger ages, more scheduled activities, fear of allowing children to play out, and of course, screen technology.  I therefore feel opportunities for this type of play are valuable and should be facilitated as much as possible. However, it’s certainly not facilitated by the constant distraction of TV screens.

I have also observed other parents at the facility. Contrary to your assertions, I have not seen any that appear to welcome the presence of the TV. In fact I often see parents struggling to get their children to finish their meals because they are distracted by the TV. On a number of occasions I have asked parents if they object to my turning the TV off. They have always been more than happy for me to do so. However, I find that the staff appear to have been instructed to ensure the TV is on at all times. When I have pointed out that I, and others, do not want it on, they have simply put it on with the sound down – as I have illustrated above, this is not conducive to the social interaction and creative, imaginative play that the children are trying to engage in.

I also wonder if your staff are aware that the CBBC channel is actually intended for children aged 6 to 12. Yet the majority of children using the facility are younger than this, and many of the programmes on this channel unsuitable for them.

As I mentioned in my original correspondence with you, children are unable to self-regulate. If a TV screen is there they will watch it, whether or not they find the content disturbing, and whether or not there are better things to do. There have been many studies that show the negative effects of background TV on children’s play and attention spans.

Childhood today is already encroached upon enough by the existence of screen technology.  Please ask yourself again if the TV screens in the children’s area at your club are really necessary, or indeed wanted by the parents, or beneficial to the children.

Yours sincerely

A long-time club member, concerned parent, and advocate of children’s play.


*After receiving this letter, the manager of the club telephoned me to say that they would be turning the TV off in the children’s play area on a trial basis.

Good old messy play!

May 29, 2012

Some months ago I was moving some old plant pots about, some of them still filled with compost, and being undecided on where to recycle the compost I put them at the side of the house ‘for the time being’ (you know, the way we dump things in the spare room……).

Lo and behold, I have created a messy play area. My child and his friends from neighbouring houses, aged between 3 and 7, love playing with these pots. They have become quite a fixture. Little spades, cups, diggers, and other things have been added, migrated from the sand pit mostly. Sometimes they like adding water, sometimes they move dirt from one pot to another, sometimes they run up and down the street with a toy wheelbarrow, collecting items (mostly stones and leaves as far as I can see) for their potions or soups. They mix with sticks, they serve up bowls and plates of various delicacies. I’m not always sure exactly what they’re doing, but they are always busy and intent and often working together as a team, like a nest of ants, on an imaginary mission of some sort.

They love it, and I love it too – they’re happy, busy, having fun and engaging in some good creative, natural play. What’s not to like?

Well, apparently, plenty. Not all the neighbours* share my love of the messy play area. I’ve considered moving it (for about 2 seconds) in order to maintain neighbourly relations. I’ve heard objections to painting house walls with old paint brushes and toy brooms, objections to spraying cars with water (?!), and most of all, objections to children becoming wet and muddy.

Now, I don’t know if I use all my empathy muscles up on parenting my child, but I admit I’m really struggling to empathise with this one. There are various types of play and ways to play, and the way I see it is that natural, creative, messy play is one of the best. To restrict this is to curb children’s natural creativity and inclination to play, explore, learn and use their imaginations. So before we restrict, I think it’s worth stopping and asking why we’re restricting, and if it’s worth it.

Usually it’s because we know we’ll have to deal with the mess, so it’s about our own convenience. OK, everyone has a point at which they feel enough is enough, we’re tired, we’ve got a zillion other jobs to do, usually also related to cleaning up after the kids, but think about it. Mud washes out. Their clothes will most likely be going in the laundry basket at bedtime anyway. Unless we’re about to go out, what’s the problem? And we can always facilitate the play by providing wellies, or an old coat or apron for example. Do we really have a good enough reason to say no?

On one occasion the kids emptied out a huge pot of compost onto the middle of our drive. Neighbours looked in wonder as they passed. It took 3 minutes to shovel it back into the pot before we could get the car out. Worth it? I think so. And I’m sure if I’d asked them to do it they’d have done so with enthusiasm.

A few weeks ago, I was in the school playground with my child chatting with another mum at pick up time. There was a muddy patch under a tree. It had been sunny that day and the mud had turned into a lovely soft, squidgy consistency. My child was enjoying making footprints and playing in it. My instinct was to tell him to stop, but I caught myself and asked “How long will it take to wipe some mud off his shoes tonight? And he’ll have to wash his hands when we get home anyway, before he can have his snack.” I said nothing, he had fun, and one less command was issued that day

There’s also the issue of creating a general attitude about dirt. Personally, I don’t want my child to be worried about it. I make a point of using second-hand clothes as much as possible. I never buy anything white, and if it’s given to me it goes straight into the NCT sale. (Why design children’s clothes with white collars and sleeves anyway, and whose idea was it for children to wear white polo shirts to school?!) I think if a child is frequently told not to do things because they’ll get dirty they can become preoccupied with cleanliness, suppressing their natural curiosity and desire to explore, experience things and just, well, be kids.

Yes, there’s a time and a place for messy play, but I think we should ensure these times and places are maximised, not minimised. Worrying about dirt and mess is an adult thing. Children shouldn’t have to worry about getting dirty – there’s plenty of time for that later. For now, they’re children, and their business is to play.

*The neighbour referred to was made aware of this post before it was published.