Risk is an acceptable part of children’s lives at Summerhill School.
You cannot give children freedom without risk, and there is nothing quite like the issue of risk to divide opinion about what is best for children. There is a strong, intuitive desire in parents to protect their children, to minimise the risks they face and maximise the benefits. On the other hand we feel proud of our children when they take risks and triumph.
Where is the balance?
Summerhill, and generally most democratic free schools, are inherently more risky than other schools. It is a fundamental part of the philosophy of Summerhill that adults should not be looking at and measuring children all the time. This means that children are left alone to get along with their own lives, negotiating difficulties, getting bored, playing, arguing, fighting and taking risks. Many of the risks that children take can seem extraordinary.
Here is an example. I walk out of the school building and look across the field to see the large Leylandia swaying alarmingly from left to right. A child is up in the top branches using his body weight to see if he can get the tree to bend over far enough so that he can jump off it and on to the trampoline. I have visions of broken bones, teeth lying all over the floor, an urgent trip to the Accident and Emergency Room in Ipswich and an apologetic conversation with angry parents. Yet this is Summerhill School. I could walk over and tell him that it all looks a bit risky to me but he would probably just think I am even more of an old fart than he already does.
In the end he decides for himself that the move is not going to work and gets down from the tree on his own. I notice he isn’t even wearing shoes. He has a lean athleticism about him and a confident gait as he goes towards the kitchen hatch for afternoon tea and biscuits. It makes me wonder when exactly I would step in to stop something dangerous happening.
There are some examples of safety issues that are well regulated at Summerhill. Will in the Woodwork has a clear set of procedures that the kids have to obey if they want a hope of getting to use the more sophisticated equipment. He also organises the firework display on November 5. He may use some older Carriage kids to help, but they are trained in safety procedures, wear the silly glasses, stand the right distance away from the fireworks and keep an eye on each other. All the rest of the kids are on the other end of the sports field far away from any danger.
Like so many issues that raise their heads at Summerhill, the reality is a far cry from the shrillness of the newspapers when they are looking for scandal. Children do not run around uncared for; they are not allowed to do whatever they please; they do not take absurd risks like playing with fireworks or play fighting with sharp blades. The Meeting keeps an eye on things and there is a pretty clear idea about what they all call “the law of the land”. The Community as a whole wants to continue to enjoy the substantial freedoms it has and does not want to imperil that by putting health and safety at risk.
A good example of this is the extremely close relationship the school has with the fire department in Leiston, which uses the school to practice. They praise the systems of evacuation at the school and the school in turn does everything it can to help the fire officers know what the school is like, in case something horrific ever should happen. They come along and hide a sand filled dummy in the buildings, fill the building with harmless smoke and the firemen have to come and rescue it, while all the children stand outside watching. If something did happen the firemen would know the school and the kids are very well trained in fire procedure.
Fires are obviously life-threatening. Many of the risks and fears we allow to dominate our awareness are really nothing more than bogey-men. We allow ourselves to be inhibited by fears of the unknown, the slightly risky and the unusual.
Questions of risk are questions of judgement.
John Holt tells the story of a young mother who runs behind her child as he is toddling along the low wall beside the park pond. He is in no real danger of injury. If he falls one way he will get a bit wet but he won’t drown. If he falls the other way he will get muddy but he won’t break a bone. What will the mother achieve by running behind her child and protecting him from these “risks”? If you leave children alone, they take these risks all the time and learn from them. They learn how to trust their own bodies and their own judgement. They learn how to be safe by taking risks. And practice gives you fine motor control that you cannot achieve by reading safety manuals.
The question of risk at Summerhill is much broader than just thinking about the moderate physical risks that some children take, such as riding their skateboards without a helmet. It extends to the “life risk” of not taking an interest in the education that our fearful world tells us is so absolutely essential to well-being. For many people the idea of sending a child to Summerhill is extremely risky because the child “might not go to any classes”. This is the same argument that we have come across so often in these blog posts: “I know better because I am an adult: you need to do this because I say it is good for you.”
Summerhill’s radical position is to say that there is far more benefit in allowing a child to self-regulate than in attempting to achieve that regulation yourself. So, in an ideal Summerhill world, teachers and houseparents would keep their paws off the kids as much as possible. They would allow them to grow up exploring their boundaries with the world and with each other, learning how far they can go and when to draw back. This lived experience gives them confidence, maturity and poise both physically and mentally.
I say an ideal Summerhill world because the reality is never quite so clear. It is strangely difficult to walk past that child in the tree. It is equally hard to accept that a child is not reading if you are a reader as I am. This means that the risks that children take are constantly discussed and evaluated at Summerhill, by the community as a whole in the Meeting, by the staff and by the management. But kids can still do a lot more there than they can almost anywhere else.
Into the woods!
That picture at the top of the blog is John, now a university film school student. Leonard took the picture. John was often somewhere in the middle of that thick tree/bush. Leonard would go by the tree and say ” Hello tree!” John, the tree would say, ” Hello Leonard.” Leonard would then say somethiong like, ” Youre a stupid tree. I’ve never seen you in lessons.” The John tree would insult Leonard back. They often started yelling and swearing. ” Trees should not be swearing” ” It’s allowed at Summerhill you idiot.” Great fun.