Brian Viner: What better training for life than to climb trees?

Accidents outdoors are more wholesome than accidents in front of a computer screen
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The Independent Online

The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) is, paradoxically, a rather accident-prone body, sometimes inclined to trip over its own good intentions. Its strictures crop up a lot on an angry website called Nanny Knows Best, nobly "dedicated to exposing, and resisting, the all-pervasive nanny state that is corroding the way of life and the freedom of the people of Britain".

A call for no glassware in pubs, citing health and safety issues, has this week stirred up the furious indignation of Nanny Knows Best contributors, who have previously vented their spleen over an attempted ban on schoolboys playing conkers, a campaign supported by RoSPA.

However, at its International Play Safety Conference which begins tomorrow at Loughborough University, RoSPA, while not going quite so far as to endorse playground games of conkers, will at least proclaim its wholehearted support for another traditional childhood pursuit: climbing trees.

For this the organisation must be commended. Its head of leisure safety, Peter Cornall, has declared that "when children spend time in the great outdoors, getting muddy, getting wet, getting stung by nettles, they learn important lessons - what hurts, what is slippery, what you can trip over from."

Mild accidents sustained outdoors, Mr Cornall asserts, are much more wholesome than accidents sustained in front of a computer screen. "We need to ask whether it is better for a child to break a wrist falling out of a tree, or to get a repetitive-strain wrist injury at a young age from using a computer or a video games console," he said.

He is right, of course, although there is still something slightly weird about a society dedicated to the prevention of accidents actually recommending nettle stings, and declaring a wrist broken from a fall out of a tree to be somehow more desirable than a wrist stricken with RSI from playing too much Awesome Possum Kicks Dr Machino's Butt - which I confess is a video game that once had a following in my house, although not from me.

Weirder still, though, is the realisation that we live in a world in which a royal society, no less, actually feels the need to advise parents to let their kids do as kids have done for millennia, and climb trees. It is sad that our risk-averse nation has to be offered such advice, and perhaps even sadder that some parents will decline to take it, arguing that at least when a child is in front of a screen they know where he or she is.

The publicity surrounding the desperate case of Madeleine McCann feeds this kind of parental anxiety, which was also illuminated in a recent study by the Children's Society showing that 43 per cent of adults thought children should not be allowed out with their friends until they are 14 or over. Child psychologists then weighed in with the warning that by keeping them indoors, or allowing them out only under supervision, we are crippling our children socially, that in essence we are in danger of producing a generation of social retards who are fantastic at playing Grand Theft Auto.

I recently interviewed the great West Indian cricketer Sir Garfield Sobers, who told me that his own two sons, though talented cricketers, never really flourished in the sport because they preferred to come home and watch television. In the Caribbean more youngsters are playing cricket than ever before, he added, but every game they play is organised at a proper cricket field, with proper equipment, by adults. The spontaneous game of cricket in the street is, to a large extent, a thing of the past, Sobers maintained, and if that is true in the West Indies, it is trebly the case here.

This might be overstating things a little but a bit of hyperbole never hurt anyone, as I think even RoSPA might agree. It is widely agreed that children need to taste broccoli, yet the taste of freedom, even more important for their wellbeing, is increasingly being denied them because of fears of predatory paedophiles, unstable trees, speeding vans or a host of other perceived dangers. Such dangers, statistically, are negligible. All sensible parents know that. On the other hand, paedophiles do strike, rotten branches do give way, speeding vans do mount pavements.

So what is the answer? It is surely that parents must be encouraged to make up their own minds and their own rules, according to where they live and other circumstances. It is easy, as a parent, to rush to judgment over the way other people bring up their children. We all do it all the time. I have already done it myself in this very column. But parenthood is the one job, arguably the most important job any of us do, for which there is no training available.

Next week, for example, I will become the father of a 14-year-old girl for the first time. We all make it up as we go along, trying to use a combination of instinct and common sense. For some, including me, that commonsense means letting them climb trees. For others it doesn't. So which of us shall be the arbiter of common sense?

Besides, it gets harder to cling on to common sense when you feel the world around you has gone mad. How long will it be, I wonder, before the National Tree Society responds to RoSPA's pronouncement with the worrying statistic that between 175 and 200 trees die in Britain every year as a result of children climbing on them?

b.viner@independent.co.uk

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