Children come to school for interesting, creative and engaging learning activities. Supplying these safely is one of the most important aspects of a teacher’s professional life. But the idea of “safety” breaks down into different areas, all of which need to be considered carefully by schools and individual teachers.
Safety in Numbers
Before children can form the friendships that help them develop as people, they have to feel safe from bullying in the school environment. This means that teachers need to incorporate strong anti-bullying messages into their teaching. The beginning of the school year is a very good time to tackle this through role play, group-based activities and lists of class rules, prepared by the children themselves. Display space should be given to the importance of friendship and respect. Most importantly, behaviour needs to be challenged early on. Teachers also need to be alert to what happens in the playground and to how children interpret remarks that we as adults might ignore. Without this bedrock, it is very difficult for children to enjoy school at all, and some will begin to dread it, if there are bullies in the class.
That aside, the safe environment of the classroom must be a place where challenging and interesting activities can safely happen. Children should be regularly reminded of basic safety rules such as carrying scissors, moving chairs and walking considerately in the classroom. In physical education lessons, especially gymnastics, children should be shown how to move equipment safely and the teacher should insist on it all the time. A very common mistake here is carrying mats unsafely. Mats can be heavier and more awkward to carry than they look, and it is possible for children to hurt themselves, even though they might think they are “light.” Teachers need to give thought to the set-up of their classroom. How easy is it to move around? Do children push each other if they get in each other’s way? How do they open and close doors? Some of these seemingly obvious points can lead to arguments as well as injury.
Every teacher wants to be able to do the occasional exciting activity, such as drama, cooking, or using different materials and equipment like glue guns or saws. No one wants to prevent schools inspiring children through these often highly memorable lessons. But these need to be arranged carefully. A drama lesson needs to match the activity to the space. It should not allow lots of running that is not tightly controlled. A cookery session needs to be announced to parents beforehand, ingredients should be checked against children’s allergies, and the cooking utensils need to be introduced and demonstrated to children carefully. Technology sessions that involve things like saws are important and children need to be taught the skills of safely using them. Any child who does not use these skills appropriately needs to be challenged, even if they look in control of what they are doing.
Some might say that being too worried about safety will strangle lessons like these at the planning stage, or make them so anodyne that no-one can really benefit from them. But that is not true. An essential part of keeping a safe environment is teaching children to understand and manage risk, which also helps them to develop their independence and maturity. If a child knows how dangerous a saw can be, he will treat it with more respect and will enjoy the challenge of using it properly. So this is not about removing anything that might seem “unsafe”, it is about recognizing dangers and minimizing them.
Children need to be safe. They also need to be challenged and extended, and one of the most significant things about focusing on safety is that it aids education and responsibility. With a safe classroom, children can develop both their understanding and their confidence.