When I think back to now to my own childhood in a rural mining village in Warwickshire, it strikes me how much of it was enjoyed outdoors.
One of my earliest memories is playing hopscotch on the badly laid, uneven pavement outside our house. Not long after I recall tramping off with friends into the woods to build a dam in a local stream. A few years later, on holiday, I was learning to fish in rockpools with my dad, perched patiently on the slippery rocks hoping to get a bite.
Playing outside was something my generation did, and we were better for it. Certainly there were times when we came home with cuts and bruises – or even broken bones – but when we did we brought something else back with us: a lesson about the world.
If you fell out of a tree, it hurt. But it taught you either what not to do next time or that tree climbing was not for you. It gave you a healthy respect for the physical world around you, what risks you could reasonably take and what to do differently next time.
Subsequent generations have it seems gradually been deprived of that connection with the outdoors and the education that it afforded them.
When I speak to employers they often tell me that it is becoming increasingly difficult to find young people to take up apprenticeships who have the physical or mechanical aptitude of people they would have interviewed 10 or 15 years earlier. They haven’t built a go-kart to race down a local hill, or repaired a puncture on their bike.
In HSE, we are focused on health and safety in the workplace, but it is clear that attitudes to risk are formed long before young people enter the world of work. Play – and particularly play outdoors – teaches young people how to deal with risk. Without this awareness and learning they are ill equipped to deal with working life. Our health and safety system in Britain requires workplace risks to be managed, not eliminated, and gives people responsibility for their own wellbeing. We simply cannot afford to exclude outdoor play and learning from our children’s education.
Young people are curious, and they learn quickly. We should not deny them the opportunity to learn by taking risks. Seeking to protect them from every conceivable hazard, rather than sensibly managing the genuine risks they face, ultimately leaves them in harm’s way, not to mention robbing them of memories that last a lifetime.