Physical activity risks at school. What exactly is cotton wool?

Warnings about risk are moral endeavors. Agendas which aim to minimize risk involve (usually implicit) ideas about human safety, welfare and security. But when people perceive the risk-minimization agenda is being taken too far, such as attempting to minimize risk in school settings, the reaction often contain claims of “nanny state” and “cotton wool”. But a recent Australian news report shows that everything we think about raising “tough”, “resilient” children might be a sham. I recommend reading the link above and then reading the rest of this critique … at your own risk.

The fascinating thing about this article is that despite the “pro-risk narrative” in the title, this narrative is subtly subverted through various disclaimers and imagery. The end result is that far from being a place where children “stare down risk”, the schools presented in the article are places where risk is continuously managed through numerous physical structures and rules. Here are some Socratic questions:

  1. What is the point of the article?
    The article title is: “The anti-cottonwool schools where kids stare down risk in favour of nature play.” Look at the rhetoric here. Schools are positioned as resisting cotton wool and the children are actively staring down risk. Big claims for sure, but they are not necessarily borne out by the evidence.
  2. What activities are now promoted by the schools?
    The article suggests children can now “… race around on rollerblades, fly off ramps in crates and slide down trees.” This sounds fine, but it leads to another question …
  3. Are there any rules at all?
    Yes, actually, there are still plenty of rules:
    Helmets are compulsory
    Signed permission is essential
    Wheeled activities appear to be on a one way track
    Trampolines are fully enclosed with side netting
    No more than 2 children can be on the trampoline at any time
    No stacking milk crates
    No walking on the large wooden spools
    No tying rope to yourself
    Sun hats and shoes appear compulsory
  4. What does the play look like?
    The imagery in the article shows that far from being “free” play, the activities remain regulated with regard to risk reduction. For example, a claim that “Students at West Greenwood Primary School get knocked down, but they get up again” is accompanied by a image of someone falling off a sled onto apparently soft grass. The wheeled activities require helmets and are one way travel.
    sledbikes
    Neither the trampolining nor the “ramp” appear to be particularly places of great risk. If indeed activities such as these have been banned before then I would agree with one of the teachers in the article that things have gone too far if indeed these activities were removed.
    trampramp
  5. What is the result of all this supposed risky play?
    Well, the claim that injury complaints have reduced at one school should really provoke some thoughts. Is it that these children are being injured to the same extent but not complaining? Or impossibly, are they being injured less often despite riskier play? If it is the latter, one might argue this new play is still not risky enough! We don’t learn this from the article but it would be nice to know!

    Joe Piggin

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