Risk and the resilient child

Recently, Bedales parents gathered at the school for an absorbing presentation on ‘Building Resilient and Happy Young People’ by Dr Michael Carr-Gregg – adolescent psychologist of 30 years standing, Honorary Psychologist to the Australian Boarding Schools Association, agony uncle to Girlfriend magazine and Old Dunhurstian. Those of us present were left in little doubt as to what our children need from us with regard to their developing ‘resilience’. Michael describes this as “The capacity of your sons and daughters to face, overcome, be transformed or strengthened by adversity,” and advises parents that they must let their children learn that life is sometimes hard.

And yet, increasingly in today’s society we fail to allow our children to do things for themselves, and the vital experience of things going wrong. We really need to look at this again. Recent research suggests that we believe children are more at risk now than they were a generation ago, when the reverse is true. Also, that the majority of children want more adventurous play opportunities – it seems that activities such as climbing trees and playing in a park without adult supervision; or playing conkers, hide and seak, and chase, lie beyond the experience of many.

We underestimate our children. They are perfectly able to light fires and cook outdoors without adults stepping in when things get hot. How do I know this? Because I can remember the joy of grabbing a packet of sausages from the fridge, a frying pan, some oil and a box of matches, and heading out into the woods with my friends. After several failed attempts we lit the fire. However, it was a cold day and the fat in the pan didn’t get hot enough – nonetheless, we ate the resulting oily and soggy snack and headed home with upset stomachs. The next day we repeated the exercise, and this time cooked the bread to perfection.

Children can make things using a range of tools without adults hovering over them. I can remember raiding the family shed and finding bits of wood, nails, screws, brackets and fixtures and making all manner of bird boxes, coffins for dead mice I found in the garden, dodgy go-carts, musical instruments and rustic furniture for my less than grateful guinea pigs. It didn’t always go smoothly – I cut and bruised my fingers every now and then, suffered my share of failures, and was guilty of tantrums when things didn’t go to plan. Despite this, or more likely because of it, the experience gave me a great deal. Michael Carr-Gregg stresses the importance to the wellbeing of young people, and indeed all of us, of ‘spark’ – that passion for something that gets us out of bed, and which sees time fly past, such is the extent of our absorption. To this day I remain a DIY fanatic, and I am certain that these childhood opportunities were the foundations of this and other interests that keep me happy and fulfilled as an adult.

I know that for some first-time visitors to Dunhurst, the informal atmosphere and slightly chaotic medley of lessons and activity that makes up the school day can seem a little bewildering. This is a necessary part of our wish to make school an exciting place in which to grow up and find out who you really are. Essential to what makes Dunhurst different to other schools is that we allow pupils to do things for themselves whenever possible. We encourage children to take appropriate risks and we see mistakes as an indication that they are being challenged in the right ways – leading an assembly and speaking in front of over 200 people, asking the community to bake cakes and raise money for charity, lighting fires and eating their own cooking in Outdoor Work, designing and pursuing their own science experiments, taking on maths problems that seem way too difficult (and perhaps getting the answer wrong), reading out a poem that shows how you feel about yourself and the world around you, or speaking up when you think something is unjust.

To paraphrase Dr Carr-Gregg, our role as teachers and parents is not to protect our children from risk, but to nurture and encourage sensible risk-taking. Risk is what enables children to learn and grow and to know themselves well. So when you visit Dunhurst and see the smoke of children’s fires burning in Outdoor Work or hear an alarming noise from the science labs, fear not. It is no more and no less than children enjoying the pleasures of learning through taking risks – suffering the odd setback, perhaps, but in danger of little more than developing a love for something that will reward their investment many times over.

By Jane Grubb, Head, Bedales Prep School, Dunhurst