The Headteachers who were afraid of snow

Ges Smith, the East London Headteacher who banned children from touching snow, should be fearing the dozens of angry phone calls from parents demanding to know why he has denied children their fundamental right to play.

In an interview with Piers Morgan on Good Morning Britain, the headteacher from the Jo Richardson Community school in Dagenham defended his actions, citing the fact that children need to be ‘fit for work’ before they come into the classroom, as well as fears of being sued if a child at school was injured by a snowball. 

Smith’s reaction was, as he pointed out in the interview, symptomatic of a shift in societal attitudes. So is it a problem if headteachers feel the threat represented by compensation culture outweighs the value of giving pupils a holistic and balanced education?

If you thought the Jo Richardson Community school was a lone outpost, I’m sad to say it definitively isn’t. Our neighbour’s son goes to The Bridge Academy in Hackney where pupils were warned that they would get detention if seen having a snowball fight not only at school, but on their way home from school. Instead of embracing the learning opportunities and fun this rare heavy snowfall offers, many schools decided to close the curtains, shut the doors and keep children away from the white stuff. In doing so they are excising children from a connection with their environment and their sense of place – so crucial in forming their identity. This is our climate. Children shouldn’t be afraid of it!

Shouldn’t headteachers be held to account when they don’t allow children to play? When taking decisions around perceived hazards, shouldn’t they also learn to brace themselves against the dozens of phone calls from angry parents demanding to know why children have been denied their fundamental right to play? From parents angry at the fact their children have been denied a rare opportunity for experiential learning?

For many London children this was their first heavy and long lasting snowfall. Even teenagers will only have hazy memories of the 2008/9 winter snowfall.

Many outdoor nurseries such as Little Forest Folk in Wimbledon and Free Range Urban Kids in Hackney were, as usual, open every day. With no indoors to go into they built fires, got more active, made hot chocolate and just kept running. They embraced the learning opportunities, the fun, the enjoyment of the snow and no doubt the children got home glowing, hungry and ready for a good night’s sleep. Many Primary Schools across the country also embraced the snow – but these are not the ones we get to hear about, so these are not the ones that other headteachers get to hear about.

Nevertheless, some primary and secondary schools feel they have the right to deny children the experience of snow their nursery peers get, for the potential inconvenience that a few wet children might bring. In no other country in northern Europe are children shielded from snow in this way.

It is unlikely that Ges Smith or the other head teachers that restrained children from touching snow, making snow angels and throwing snowballs actually did receive dozens of complaints. Why is that? If the children were restricted from reading, denied access to maths or schools suddenly decided to stop allowing children to eat lunch there would almost certainly be protests. But we’ve come to schools denying children’s right to play as normal. What right have we to suggest that the establishment, for many well- meaning reasons, may be making a huge, huge mistake?

It’s usually done in the name of the holy grail of academic learning or under the seemingly inarguable cry of ’health & safety’. Neither of these arguments bear scrutiny.

If schools extended playtimes on snowdays think of all that could have been learnt… The magic of snowflakes under magnifying glasses, and the joy of a whole classes worth of mini snowmen…. And the lessons learnt with a sense of loss as it rains!

There were practical skills missed too – the core balance needed to run in slippery conditions, the ability to laugh at yourself when you fall over, and the stoicism needed to not complain about being wet for the afternoon when you did let yourself get snow everywhere. The knowledge that maybe you should wear a hat and gloves.

Only 22% of children actually get the 1 hour a day of ‘moderate to vigorous’ physical activity that the World Health Organisation (and UK Chief Medical Officers) recommend. Time outdoors helps reduce stress, aids concentration, increases opportunities to build friendship groups and builds ‘resilience’.

Secondary schools may be concerned about the risk that children’s excitement will balloon into something more confrontational – and in some schools behaviour management is an issue – but to use this as a justification to ban contact with snow is not an appropriate response.

The Health and Safety Executive has repeatedly issued statements to say public officials should not be focusing on the ‘trivial risks’ involved in snowball fights, and should focus on the important ones. They’ve clearly grown tired of headteachers hiding behind ‘health and safety’ as an excuse to limit children’s experience of snow, as they’ve gone to the effort of producing a poster which says as much – it’s on the ‘Health and Safety Myths’ section of their website.

Playing in snow is fun, and knowing your school wants you to have some fun is also a good feeling, and one that gets you into class when you really don’t feel like it.

This fear of the elements is an anxiety peculiar to this country. Linda McGurk, in her excellent book ‘There is No Such Thing as Bad Weather”, marvelled at the fact that her daughter’s  primary school in Sweden decided to ditch lessons one afternoon so children could play longer in the snow. The teachers there understood and explained clearly why it was important for young children to feel confident in snow, and how that gave them confidence in themselves.

So next time you hear a school in the UK has denied children their right to play, maybe it’s time we stopped acquiescing and silently agreeing that of course they must know best? Maybe it’s time to challenge them?

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