I want in the article that follows, and the next one, to consider aspects of the resistance, current and developing, to what can be called the ‘pro-risk’ movement in respect of play and outdoor learning.
In this, I’m as interested in the subjective, internalised, self-oppression experienced by at least some – I hazard to suggest actually many – practitioners, a symptom of which is abiding by norms that they rationally disavow, as much as objective factors such as the hold Standards have on thought and action.
This piece, I’m afraid, ends in a minor key.
Progress and movement
I remember thinking myself rather bright – a momentary conceit – when, in some essay or other, upon which matter I cannot now recall, I drew a distinction between progress and mere movement, and the danger of mistaking the latter for the former. It is, I think, a not uncommon error which, unchecked, can restrict vision to that which one likes to see. The concomitant danger being threats, barriers and counter-currents come to occupy only one’s peripheral vision, or are pushed out of sight completely.
These musings once again tapped me on the shoulder as I enjoyed the splendid three day 5th International School Grounds Alliance (ISGA) conference in Lund, Sweden, hosted by the formidable City of Lund’s Naturskolan team. The programme included visits to some quite delicious school grounds and public spaces. Green, ‘natural’ spaces, needless to say. The taste reference, by the way, is not misplaced since the treats included first rate lunches grown and/or cooked by local schools.
Of course, conferences such as this one tend to address people broadly of like mind. Such gatherings are necessary both from a practical point of view – learning from colleagues, being introduced to different possibilities, developing one’s craft – and as a form of ritual where a shared faith is publicly re-affirmed among a congregation of co-believers. A good ritual moistens the eyes at the same time as it girds the loins ready for the travails ahead.
And loins indeed need to be girded, for even as the immediate, presented material enchanted – those ‘delicious’ places – it was clear from conversations with delegates from a number of countries that counter-currents are swirling, and barriers are being erected that slow, reverse or halt what we call progress in the matter of risk in play and learning. There was a palpable sense of unease about this, notwithstanding the images that were shared, or the places of enchantment that we visited.
This sense of reverse and stasis has been subject to a more systematic interrogation than my own admittedly anecdotal findings allow. Thus, Ellen Beate Hansen Sandseter and Ole Johan Sando in a joint article for the American Journal of Play, reported their research into growing risk averseness in Norwegian early education and care settings. They found that:
‘Overall, the results in this study show an increasing focus on safety and an increase in restricting children’s risky play, even in a country such as Norway that has been regarded as one of the least risk averse in terms children’s play.’
As they say, ‘even in a country such as Norway’, to which I add, ‘even in Sweden’. And of cousre, there’s the USA.
These trends – if trends they be – are also detectable here in the UK.
This at first blush may seem surprising or even wrong for the UK is rightly regarded as being in the forefront of progress in making the case for beneficial risk-taking in play (a case that flows easily into the education sphere of outdoor learning). That case, as many readers will know, is embodied in various publications and policy statements, not least those published under the imprimatur of the UK Play Safety Forum and that of UK health and safety regulator, the Health and Safety Executive.
And running alongside these statements is a diverse, and not unmerry, band of advocates, proselytising the faith to the unsure and uninitiated.
At the policy level, here in the UK, it is therefore right to say that progress has been made. And there are examples of felicitous translations of policy into practice on the ground.
It is less certain, however, whether overall it is possible to see progress in the multitude of day-to-day, on-the-ground, frontline decisions made about play provision, be that in respect of designated playgrounds, shared public space or within pre-school and school settings. At that level, where decisions bite directly, there is not always, or even frequently, a discernible connection between the enlightened policy positions referred to above, and to which I frequently and happily point, and decision-making on the ground. Here, other forces and considerations come into play (no pun intended), such that on-the-ground decisions can occur within an almost hermetically sealed realm, in practice untouched by policy-endorsed Higher Order Imperatives.
It does not shout, nor issue policy statements
It’s worth reflecting for a moment on the different characteristics of what for the present I’m calling two realms: one, the realm of policy formulation, promulgation and dissemination; the other, the realm of action on the ground.
Effective policy-making stimulates and relies on integrative tendencies, it draws in constituencies, engages with them, seeks to create unified, broadly consensual positions; and this all happens at a relatively high level within an organisational hierarchy. All this effort is then consummated in a publicly stated Policy Pronouncement. Its intent is to affect action on the ground. But on-the-ground is a different realm entirely.
The realm of on-the-ground is disconnected, diffuse, comprising a multitude of locally-focused decision-makers, to whom it falls to interpret policy pronouncements in the light of their own predilections, beliefs and prejudices and within the context of the real-time assumed and actual pressures that bear down on them. Decisions that are value-based, that rely on individual judgment, for example on what constitutes an acceptable level of risk, are particularly subject to this constellation of influences. Judgment, after all, is a form of self-exposure, and implies the taking of responsibility. In circumstances such as these, the purity of a carefully crafted policy position can become dilute or contaminated, this often masked by judicious use of the word processing cut and paste function that easily imports into local documentation phrases drawn from those Higher Order Imperatives, but where the meaning is left behind. In these cases, policy phrases serve as cover for subverting their own intent.
Note also that whilst policy ‘progressives’, by the very nature of their undertaking, are driven to publicly proclaim their position and rationale, those opposed, along with those simply enmeshed in their own inertia, feel neither the need nor have the capacity publicly to articulate their in-effect counter-position.
The non-articulation of a counter-position, the absence of reasoned, publicly stated refutation of ‘progressive’ policy pronouncements, acts as a restraining drag on the potential for change. It might be called the Case of the Absent Interlocutor – the opposition that will not roll up its sleeves and step outside.
The counter position proceeds by increments, project by discrete project – the steady accretion of facts on the ground that bind up the future.
This has not been a cheery piece; the article has a dismalist’s hue. But no harm is done in undertaking occasional excursions into bleak; clouds cannot be ignored simply because they obscure the sun.
In the next piece, probably three weeks or so away, it’s likely I’ll pursue the thought signalled in the preamble, about internalised, self-oppression and succumbing to norms that one’s rational self would want to disavow.