What an awesome night yesterday at OWLS Club. The children were in the zone and very focused on their play. Ok, so it started to rain, but there is nothing like putting up a tarp shelter and lighting a fire to bring on the feeling of contentment and being enveloped by the deepening darkness.

As we were heading back at the end of the session, the children ran off and hid in the darkness with the grown ups trying to spot them in the thick bracken with our torches. Oh, I do like reflective strips on kids jackets! I found one five year girl perfectly happy hiding in a dip in the ground. She was lying down in a damp patch of grass and looking up at the trees. (I would like to add she was also looking at the stars but that was more wishful thinking than reality last night.) No amount of persuasion would get the little girl to move and it was past our time to head down the hill back to the cars. The others walked on down to the bright headlights and I remained behind with the child. While I waited for her to get up and return with me to the cars, I switched off my torch and set myself to wait patiently in the darkness of the Aberdeenshire woods.

At that moment, I heard a faint whisper and snuffle coming from nearby. At first I thought it was the girl climbing out of her hiding place but I was sorely mistaken. I stood still and held my breath. I heard the soft sound again, eerily reminiscent of a snow leopard! The sound came closer. Four paws on the ground creeping slowing towards me. The giant cat inched its way closer to me and I began to wonder about my fate, Would I be mauled by a giant cat in Birse or would it return quietly with me to the cars? In fact neither happened, something must have surprised the cat as it suddenly shot off down the hill at the speed of a hunting cheetah and was already belted into the car by the time I got down the hill.

Now, the whole purpose of this post is not just the telling of a story, but in the recognition of why a particular strategy worked for a specific child at one moment in time. This is not about waving a magic wand a saying this technique will work every time we have a reluctant child not wanting to conform to our own particular expectations. (In this case of recognizing it was well past the time to head home and return to the cars with the rest of the group.) Metaphorically, by reaching out to the child at her level, and by entering into a world of fantasy (initially created by me by verbally suggesting that there might be a snow leopard hunting in the Birse woods) but taken on by her, enabled her to move from the position of being very mildly rebellious and testing out the opportunities and boundaries of defiance, to a position where she was happily able to return to her mum at the car park. Not a cross word spoken, not a frustrated leader in sight. Just a happy little girl who had transformed herself temporarily into a wild snow leopard creeping around in the woods.

Positive Failure

In supporting and educating children in the need to be more resilient, and in order to help prevent the complex mental health issues and extreme anxiety that I am seeing more of when working with youngsters, we need to enable children (and ourselves!) to learn how to fail. But not just learn that it is ok to to fail. The critical learning point is to pick yourself up and try again, and again and again, all the while constantly learning, adjusting and developing successful strategies.

This happens a lot in the outdoor play environment. A child will try to light a fire using a striker and it takes practise…you don’t get instant results. You need to adjust the pressure on the striker, the angle of the strike, the type of tinder you use, the number of tiny sticks you add to build the fire and so on. Children implicitly learn resilience because they are extremely self motivated to succeed when they are playing outside in the woods at OWLS Club.

We also see this in babies learning to sit up….picture a 6 month old wobbling as they sit on their bottom and then toppling forward or backward and hitting the floor. They don’t give up…they persevere. Imagine a 13 month old learning to walk and falling over and over and over again.

As educators, perhaps we should be encouraging children to learn to fail, and then try again. Our teaching culture (particularly in maths) is very focused on success and getting the answers right. Perhaps we should be spending more time on enabling our youngsters to fail and then learn from their setbacks, for example in open-ended and enterprising problem solving. This would not only enable their maths skills to develop and consolidate, but also to develop their resilience and ability to pick themselves up after failure and try again.

As Noel Coward said, “The secret of success is the ability to manage failure.”

Risk in the Outdoors

This afternoon I was asked to have a chat with a teacher about a particular child in their school. Some of you may know that last January I started doing some work with youngsters who were struggling with the whole primary school environment. One of the topics that came up in our conversation today was the need for children to develop the ability to risk assess their own activities. I have used this opportunity for self-guided learning both in a classroom context and also when working with individuals.

As a class teacher, enabling a whole class to risk assess an outdoor, medieval cooking session opened my eyes to some of the benefits of children participating in group risk assessments. They worked out, through brainstorming together, who and what might be at risk and what these risks might be. They then had the chance to discuss how they might lower these potential risks to a more acceptable level. Once this was achieved we headed outside to do the cooking on a fire.

That afternoon I experienced children actively supporting each other by reminding each other to be careful, reminding each other where they should be walking (to stay safe from the fire) how to move the hot pans and hot food. They looked out for each other and I was redundant as a purveyor of the tedious health and safety. The article below states,

“Because we care about children, and due to shifting societal norms, we can tend to over-protect them. Researchers have shown that by sheltering our children too much, they fail to develop “proprioceptive sense” (ie. muscle and joint control) and even a simple game such as tag can ironically become dangerous because the children lack the basic skills to “play gently.” Some schools have even started banning tag games because the kids are reportedly unable to self-regulate and are unintentionally seriously injuring each other, according to occupational therapist Angela Hanscom. These children have not been given a chance to develop the risk assessment skills that Stacy’s young sons are already learning. This can lead them to not only have a stunted ability to assess and manage risks, but to lack resiliency, defined by Angela Lee Duckworth as “having a positive response to failure or adversity.”

It is so important we give our children opportunities to assess risk for themselves to develop personal resilience and avoid potential later mental health problems. Hospitals are observing now that fewer children are going to A&E with broken arms and legs, but so many more are now on waiting lists for mental health support. Perhaps there is a correlation?