Children Should Eat Dirt By Ken James, Headmaster, Red House School

Issue 24

I often say children should eat dirt. I often get rather strange looks when saying this too. Whilst some might expect these controversial words to have come from the mouth of the formidable headmistress in Matilda, Miss Trunchbull, they seem a little surprised that the words are emanating from a pupil-centric headmaster of a respected independent school! I do, of course, say the words with the best of intentions. I also mean them both literally and metaphorically.

Recently, I went with a group of Year 10 pupils on their practice D of E expedition. I enjoy outdoor education and have worked in a number of different settings with a focus on the outdoors. However, I was a little disappointed to see on the kit list, hand sanitising gel. It’s one of my pet hates and I was rather vocal about it. It’s well publicised that hand sanitising gel is no more effective than soap and water but my main concern is that it kills beneficial bacteria and can have an effect on the immune system. I’m worried that in an over-sanitised world children will compromise their ability to fight disease. I’m sure there’s plenty of evidence to the contrary (and with many of my parents being medical practitioners I am ready to stand corrected!) but mine is an opinion nonetheless which is also held by others.

What about metaphorically eating dirt? Well, children need to build up a tolerance to the challenges of life, just as they need to build up a tolerance to disease. Are we preparing a generation of young people who are adaptable and resilient to face an ever changing world? Do we, as adults, allow the children to take risks and learn from mistakes leading to greater levels of success?

The natural reaction of any parent is to keep their child safe. The safest option of all would be for children to do very little, but this in turn would lead to truncated development and a rather dull existence. When dealing with young people we need to be risk aware not risk averse. We need to help them overcome difficulties rather than ‘helicopter’ in each time to solve the problems for them.

I’m not one of life’s natural risk takers. I don’t particularly like standing on tall buildings, but attach a rope to a harness, fasten it securely around me and I’m pretty comfortable abseiling down most heights. I’ve worked a lot with children who are both climbing and abseiling. Once again, the safest option would be for them not to attempt the activities. However, managing and overcoming fear in the outdoors translates to everyday life. Learning to think rationally and assess risks easily helps the children to handle the challenges in more traditional school settings. Practical tips, for example learning to control ones breathing are also invaluable; how useful this would be in the run up to public examinations.

So, when I say children should eat dirt, I say it with a wry smile on my face. But if they’re not eating dirt, please ensure they’re facing their fears…with a safety rope attached!

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