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Last weekend I went back to visit my old school. It was the 150th anniversary of its opening and I was looking forward to touching base with some childhood memories and friends. The original school buildings were destroyed in a fire nearly forty years ago. I found myself walking across a campus seeing walls where playgrounds had been, and pathways where my classroom had once stood. It was a strange experience to be mentally superimposing long lost buildings, lunch areas and images of running children onto what is now a very different environment.

I guess I might have presented a slightly enigmatic figure, wandering around with eyes that saw what was no longer there.

Missing too, were the throngs of old friends I had hoped to meet. Maybe it had something to do with the almost fifty years that had passed in the interim. Maybe I walked straight past a lot of them and didn’t recognise them. I, of course, had not changed in appearance. Sadly, others had. Did I really go to school with those old people?

Anyway, it was great to catch up with one or two old friends, who I suspect, were feeling much the same as I was – overwhelmed by the evidence that the school of our childhood no longer existed.
There was only one reminder. The camphourlaurel trees along the fence line had seemed so huge back then. Through adult eyes they were immediately recognisable, but somehow they weren’t quite so high anymore. They seemed old when we were enrolled, so that would mean maybe now they had been there more than a century.

We laughed together about how we would spend lunch breaks climbing on the branches and ‘parachuting’ out to execute what we thought were proper paratrooper rolls when we hit the ground. This was great fun. I don’t remember any teacher being too worried that we would hurt ourselves. How times have changed.

I introduced myself to the present principal and told him the story of what we used to do in the trees. He smiled and added quickly that students were no longer permitted that activity. “We live in a risk averse environment” was his explanation.

“Risk averse”. How I have come to despise the concept. Turning ourselves inside out with rules and protocols, we think we can sanitise our world and make it risk free. We can’t of course. We can reduce risks, but we cannot remove them, no matter how many risk assessment forms are filled in and signed.

Have you noticed how after a tragedy, we demand our governments and our corporations take all necessary steps to ensure that “something like this can never happen again”. I hear this phrase frequently and it grates: An understandable yet unrealistic demand. The world has always been an inherently risky place, however much we stamp our feet and demand that it should be otherwise.

Maybe the world is a safer place for kids than it was back when we were given free reign to climb and fall out of trees. Whether it is or is not is debatable. Compliance with the risk minimisation obsession of our contemporary world is non negotiable however. Our lives are pretty much shaped by risk assessment procedures and the paper warfare that surrounds it. Try starting a business or planning a public event without it and you will find out what I mean.

We have legislated to minimise risks in the workplace and in classrooms. We try to banish the possibility of nasty things happening by imposing bureaucratic controls and regulations. Children do not climb trees anymore. They play on specially certified playground equipment. They do not ride bicycles to and from school. They are dropped off and picked up. They do not disappear for the day to have adventures. They are kept close to parents, and consequently don’t learn a lot of things they need to learn.

I don’t know. Maybe fewer children break their arm falling out of trees, but at what price?

I vote for encouraging them to climb trees.

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