The development of important skills

I remember crossing a busy road with a number of my Year 2 classmates to undergo a dental check-up at the local State primary school which the government, at the time, provided free of charge for all school children; yes it was a very long time ago! Crossing the road, by ourselves, was never considered a risk compared to the possible ambush we could face if us ‘Catholic ‘ students crossed paths with the predominantly ‘Protestant’ students from the State primary school; it was a terrifying experience. It was made worse when my classmate ran from the dental surgery with blood pouring from his mouth, screaming at us that the dentist was out to kill us; we all took off!

I also remember in sixth grade spending many hours knocking on doors in my neighbourhood asking strangers for sponsorship for the annual school walkathon. These days, doing such an activity would see me being accompanied by an adult. Yes times have changed, but just maybe our obsession with making sure our children are safe and protected from germs, disappointments, stress, sport injuries and every possible risk may prove detrimental to their long-term growth.

Manageable amounts of risk that are age appropriate is essential for a child’s psychosocial development. While it is parents’ responsibility to ensure their child is safe, we often fail to consider how to give our child the risk-takers advantage to develop the skills they will need to be competent when they are older. Too often parents forget their children are competent, capable and usually respond well to responsibility. There is a balance between keeping our children safe and giving them what they need to grow up. The problem is that our children cannot grow into resilient adults unless we provide young people with opportunities to be stretched, to be challenged and to take risks. In a funny way, keeping children safe involves them taking risks so they can learn how to assess and respond to them. Children will never understand risk if society prevents them from experiencing it. This is not to say we should be neglectful or irresponsible, rather an appreciation that we have a duty of care to give our children the tools to be contributing and effective adults.

Schools play an important role, both inside and outside the classroom, in providing opportunities where their students are challenged, stretched and are required to take risks. Outdoor education programs are some of the more important aspects of the many rich learning experiences that schools provide that allow students to challenge themselves in ways that are rare in our increasing risk-adverse society.

This term, our Year 8, 9 and 10 and hopefully Junior School students will immerse themselves in the outdoors - camping, climbing, walking and paddling in some of the most beautiful countryside in Australia. The experience will always place some outside their comfort zone, away from the securities of home and contact with screens, into the unpredictable bush environment. This experience also provides the boys with safe risk and safe challenges so they learn to meet the unfamiliar, overcome difficulty, cope with discomfort and, at times, deal with consequences while learning to cooperate, collaborate and coexist within a small group.

I came across this wonderful cartoon in the New Yorker magazine and it reminded me of an emerging culture of risk adversity.

Despite the horrors of my dentist experience and roaming alone around the neighbourhood, I always felt relatively safe but enjoyed sufficient autonomy and freedom to encounter and experience the unfamiliar. Importantly, I felt trusted to do the right thing and be responsible.

Matthew Hutchison