When Professor Ellen Beate Hansen Sandseter encounters researcher colleagues abroad, they implore her to help preserve something for which Norwegian kindergartens are famous: In Norway, children are allowed to climb trees.
Norway is a role model for many who work in early-childhood education in other countries. Many look up to us because we still do things this way. Also, they realise how difficult it can be to reverse direction if well-intentioned individuals are intent on putting children’s safety above all.
In the international arena, early-childhood education and care (ECEC) researchers and ECEC managers are increasingly concerned that we will be depriving the youngest children of their childhoods as well as of opportunities to play if we put too many restrictions on their activities. The UK and Australia are two of the countries looking to Norway as they try to reverse this trend.
The question is whether it is dangerous to let children dare to take some minor risks, the way we do in Norway?
How many children sustain injuries?
Sandseter and research colleague Ole Johan Sando conducted a survey to map all accidents in Norwegian ECEC settings in 2012.
Their study indicates that 1 out of 10 children injure themselves in a Norwegian ECEC setting each year. A total of 98 per cent of these incidents were limited to minor injuries like scrapes and bruises. Only 0.2 per cent of the children in Norwegian ECEC settings sustain a serious injury during the course of a year.
‘The injury rate is very low, considering how much children play outdoors in Norwegian preschools’, concludes Sandseter.
‘Before introducing a ban on climbing trees or onto the roof of the playhouse, we should ask ourselves whether such a ban is really in the children’s best interest.’
Removing playhouses and climbing equipment
In the same study, the researchers received open-ended answers to questions about risk and safety measures from 879 ECEC managers.
A total of 28 per cent of the respondents said that restrictions had been introduced in the ECEC facility out of concern for children’s safety.
Most of the ECEC managers mentioned restrictions on children’s play and activities.
Somewhat fewer reported that climbing equipment had been removed, or that branches had been sawed off trees. Some mentioned restrictions on children’s outdoor activities when it is slippery outside.
The researchers were also told of playhouses that had been removed for fear children would fall from the roof. Swings and other playground equipment had also been removed. Some managers reported bans on riding tricycles downhill. Others had prohibited climbing on fences.
‘Prohibiting something is such an easy solution’
‘There are not many preschool facilities in Norway that would stop children from climbing trees, but some have done so and others may follow suit’, observes Sandseter.
The expert on safety in ECEC settings is afraid that we are not aware of what is happening; things are changing.
‘Naturally, it is very easy simply to introduce a ban on something that someone considers dangerous. A ban on climbing trees is easier than dealing with climbing as a routine practical or educational challenge’, adds Sandseter.
Now the professor is cautioning about what she predicts will be coming, i.e. that Norway will continue the trend by no longer allowing children to do certain things.
Before we introduce a ban on climbing trees or on climbing on the roofs of playhouses, we need to ask ourselves if this really is in the best interest of the children, or if it is just a subterfuge to protect the adults in case something were to happen.
A liberal culture
Norwegian ECEC settings have taken a liberal attitude to risk. This has been the case for many years.
Rather than allowing safety precautions to outweigh all else, we have focused on the fact that children’s motor skills and psychological growth require that they be given the latitude to develop.
‘Letting children feel a sense of accomplishment has been important in Norwegian ECEC settings. This attitude has been ingrained. At the international level, however, it is so unusual that it has attracted attention’, reports Sandseter.
The Framework Plan for Kindergartens states that kindergartens (ECEC institutions) should help ensure that children experience the mastery of risky play through physical challenges. It also states that they should engage in a variety of physical activities, all year round.
‘The educational theory applied in Norwegian ECEC settings has always been clear about this’, continues Sandseter.
Fears the trend is reversing
Now, however, she fears that this may be in the process of changing.
‘The day that an ECEC manager gets into a discussion with a parent or a safety inspector, it might be difficult to argue that a child needs challenges. This would be especially difficult if something had happened, resulting in a child being injured.
In Norway, we have rarely had court cases resulting from accidents or injuries in ECEC settings thus far. Nor have we had a culture of parents suing preschools when children are injured, although this, too, could change’, says Sandseter with concern.
The municipality cut down the trees
The researchers found that very few children are ever seriously injured in Norwegian ECEC settings.
They also found that several ECEC managers have taken decisions of their own volition or felt pressured to introduce restrictions on what children are allowed to do in ECEC settings.
In one pre-school that was part of the study, someone from the municipality came along one day and cut down all the trees on the facility’s premises – out of consideration for the children’s safety.
Frustrated ECEC managers
In private ECEC facilities, it is more common to be visited by playground inspectors from private companies. They often place more emphasis on anything that might be dangerous, rather than on children’s need for physical challenges.
At other times, managers tell of being subjected to pressure from parents to improve safety.
‘Our study showed that managers expressed frustration about the pressure put on them, especially by parents, but also by municipal authorities, playground inspectors or the media, to introduce restrictions on children’s physical play and activities in ECEC settings’, concludes Sandseter.