5 Staying safe, anxieties and risk
In the activity in this section we will initially consider the ways in which children and adults assess and deal with risks. A particular emphasis will be on exploring the degree to which anxieties and perception of risk affect children's lives – the promotion of life skills as well as their healthy development and wellbeing.
After a discussion of what is meant by risk in today's society, we will consider the practice principles underpinning the broad concept of ‘staying safe’. You will be asked to reflect on what we mean by ‘safety’ in terms of both being safe and feeling safe.
From an understanding of the potential difference between being and feeling safe, you will consider how to challenge the assumptions and values that prevent children from being protected from harm. You will also have the opportunity to reflect on how children, parents/carers and practitioners can make considered judgments about how to act to keep children safe.
Read the article ‘Encounters with Forest School and Foucault: A Risky Business?’ (Maynard, 2007).
This paper tells the story of an encounter between two early years teachers and two Forest School workers, the growing tensions in their relationships, and how these tensions were resolved. When analysed through a Foucauldian (poststructuralist) lens, the story can be read as a battle between dominant discourses – a battle exacerbated by the outdoor context in which it took place. Exploring the consistency and contradictions between these discourses enabled the teachers to make changes to their practice and to reconstruct their professional subjectivities in a way that more closely addressed their current interests and the requirements of the proposed Foundation Phase for Wales.
Maynard concludes the article by saying that she reads the encounter between the teachers and the Forest School workers not as a personal conflict, but as a battle between two dominant discourses. Identify the key elements of the different discourses discussed.
As you watch the following video clip, consider and make notes on these questions:
What are the benefits to the children taking part in this activity?
What do the adults do to help the children assess and manage risk?
How do the adults' instructions and support differ according to the confidence and abilities of the children?
How would you describe the discourse of the workers in Stirling?
Click play to watch the 'Risk' video clip (7 minutes).
The Maynard article draws on the work of Foucault, who argued that power is not owned by individuals but, rather, flows through a network of social practices and relationships. Within this definition of power, children and adults are not only governed by others, but also govern themselves and, to a greater or lesser extent, others. Thus, children may be advised what to do by adults, but the degree to which they conform will depend on decisions made by individual children, and will also be influenced by group dynamics.
In the work of Foucault, disciplinary power is seen as related to the use of time and space, as well as to a ‘visible authoritative gaze’ in which individuals are subject to hierarchical observations. Pupils are watched by teachers who are, in turn, watched by head teachers, inspectors (on behalf of the government) and parents.
For Foucault, knowledge is inseparable from power, and is closely related to discourse, or communication, and truth. How we talk shows how we give meaning to the world and what counts as truth. In schools, as in other communities, what counts as truth is constantly changing, and some ways of talking, some discourses, are valued, whilst others are marginalised or silenced. Typically, in school the discourse of the teacher is sanctioned and normalised. Teachers talk more than their pupils and they determine the nature and content of discourse in the classroom. Teachers gain and maintain their authority in the classroom, in part, by controlling aspects of the pupils' discourse; for example, who speaks, when they speak and, to some extent, the subject of the discourse.
In part because of the pressure they feel from higher authorities, the teachers in this research reported that ‘they needed to keep the children safe and to meet curriculum targets’ by setting ‘tight boundaries’ and ensuring a ‘high level of control’ (Maynard, 2007, p.385). By comparison, the Forest School staff felt that their role was to facilitate rather than direct, and to stand back and allow the children to stand on their own feet. A tension existed between the discourses of the two groups of staff.
The teachers, who prioritised curriculum content and child safety, assumed authority over children who they assumed needed to be guided and protected. By comparison, the Forest School workers, who prioritised children's individual independence and freedom, were more likely to position children as strong and able to look after themselves. Teachers emphasised the negative aspects of risk, whilst the Forest School staff stressed the positive benefits to be gained through participating in risky activities.
As in the Forest School, the children in the DVD clip are given some responsibility for the assessment and management of risk. The clip begins with the children being given specialist clothing to wear, including wet suits and buoyancy aids. While this clothing was required, one boy was allowed to opt out of wearing a cagoule. The adults held him responsible for his own wellbeing to the extent that he was given the responsibility of telling the workers if he got cold. The children were told that two blasts on the whistle was a sign to get out of the water. A smaller group were told what to do if their kayak rolled over, but that they ‘would work out the rest as you go on’.
A number of factors may have contributed to the way in which these adults talked with the children, including:
the nature of the activity – fun, not coaching or teaching;
the experience and training of the adults;
the adult to child ratio;
a belief that children would choose activities relevant to their confidence and abilities.