Children need to take more risks says Head of HSE

29 March by Miriam Heale


Over-protecting our children is potentially causing future health and safety risks at work, argued Dame Judith Hackett Head of the HSE.

Dame Judith has spoken out at a recent speech to the Royal Academy of Engineers stating that “Overprotective parents and risk-averse teachers who do not enable children to learn to handle risk will lead to young adults who are poorly equipped to deal with the realities of the world... unable to discern real risk from trivia, not knowing who they can trust or believe,”  “They will be a liability in any workplace if they do not have those basic skills, to exercise judgement.”

She warned that children are suffering under an “excessive risk-averse” culture in schools which is damaging their ability to cope in the real world.

In April 2008 Ed Balls (then the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families) launched the 'Fair Play' initiative, in which "children need to take risks to learn how to manage risks … an essential part of growing up".   He also said that, "We mustn't wrap our children up in cotton wool, but allow them to play outside so as to better understand the opportunities and challenges in the world around them, and how to be safe."

In Toronto, three-year-olds are using power drills, soldering irons and saws in the world's only makerspace for kids; Maker Kids 

Maker Kids provide amazing interest-driven STEM programs to help kids move from being "consumers to creators".   They actively encourage children to use power tools to make and create robotic inventions and electronic devises, as well as running courses on advanced Minecraft and Videogame programming.

Jennifer Turlick at teacher at Maker Kids is quoted in as saying; "They [the children] are safe and can be creative and have autonomy here. They take ownership and tell other kids to clean up or act more safely with tools -- I've never seen that anywhere else. Some kids come to us with severe behavioural programmes -- we see them acting like little angels, we treat them like adults and they live up to that. They have fun, and know if they goof off they can hurt themselves."   If a child is nervous about using a dangerous tool and asks a teacher to do it for them, they refuse -- they'll either encourage them to learn, research online or help them find another way of achieving the same goal. They also ensure the kids know, it's ok to fail.  

In sharp contrast Dame Judith said; "We had one school who told kids they could not wear frilly socks for health and safety reasons – fearing they would trip over,” she said in a speech to the Royal Academy of Engineering. “People [now] expect to be looked after. We need to look out for ourselves and take responsibility for risk, not leave it to others.”

Children should be encouraged to climb trees, play games with risk of injury (such as 'tag' or British Bulldogs) so that they can develop their own sense of danger and assess real risks and use their own judgement instead of relying on others.

The banning of games such as conkers and snowballing are undermining her organisation’s efforts to improve safety in dangerous industries, such as construction and farming, Dame Judith stated.  She called on schools to put an end to top-down “bureaucratic” behaviour.

Read more about Maker Kids and Dame Judith's speech on the Independent