Work-play balance

It’s been far too long since I last posted. Unfortunately, my workloads have been outrageous so in the little time I had, I played! It’s not easy learning to rip-stick at 40, how to crash over logs in the bush at high speeds knowing that breaking makes things worse, and trusting a rope tied to a tree really will hold the weight of an adult long enough to swing out over an expanse of water and let go to enjoy the cool plunge in hot weather.

The work-play thing really got me thinking though. What sort of role model do I want to be, and what would I want kids to learn from how I live my life?

I realised that I would not want kids to stick to patterns are routines that make life drudgery or to be fearful of their boss, workload, or leaving a job because they saw me tapping away on my computer as if the world would combust if I didn’t send work e-mail right that moment. I was worried, stressed and anxious about deadlines, work quality, effectiveness, lack of sleep, and of saying good-bye to an emerging career if I exited the race.

So I told my partner’s kids that I would quit my job if things continued to be ridiculous. They were shocked – they found the pronouncement pretty extreme. It scared them a bit because they have watched many other adults working crazy hours to make more and more money when these adults already earn at least four times the amount of a working class family.

We talked about priorities, happiness, money, concerns about finding another job, value of work and the value of time and family, corporate culture, passion (they had thousands of questions). After going through these things many times and over time, the kids decided the decision made sense. I could play more and that was better for them!

I hope what comes out of this, is a greater understanding life is uncertain – each decision has its consequences, even the ones when we decide to do nothing. Importanly, I hope this situation was a good example that decisions may be hard and there may be significant impacts, but fear should not be primary reason behind a decision.

Note: I know there is a balance. Work can get out of whack for a bit, some projects do get adrenalin pumping like an action adventure movie, and many people do not have opportunities, skills or freedom from other responsibilities to change jobs. I also know it is about attitude because many people will be sour not matter what the situation is. However, I am fortunate because I have the option to change things a bit.

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Learning from our ‘poorer’ neighbours

The last sessions for the Child Friendly Cities Conference Asia-Pacific – Solo City Indonesia are underway.

The focus of the conference was children’s participation in decision-making about their lives. Australia and New Zealand were represented, as well as Indonesia, Malysia, Philippines,Japan, India, Pakistan, Nepal… as well as Malawi and Sudan. This was not an academic conference, although academics were here. It was a practice based conference with government and non-government workers, activists, and so forth.

Here is a short list of my observations in no particular order:

1) At times I have shared other’s views or concerns that the notion of creating Child Friendly Cities (CFC) is useless, a crock or some management fad. After listening to the activities occuring in other countries, I realise how important this framework is, and the importance of supporting and funding CFC.

In poorer countries CFC is about: access to health, books and education; access to clean water, food, and sanitation; non-exploitative (sexual trade, child marriage, forced adoption, non-registered births, paper orphans) and non-violent environments; access to childcare for younger children so older children and parents can work for their survival; children’s participation in governance structures, planning and community development…

The people involved in the CFC movement are dedicated professionals/activists who work within existing systems to forward a simple and unfortunately radical agenda: ensure that children enjoy basic human rights.

In Australia, development of CFC’s will depend on how we engage with the information and tools available, and whether we are willing to learn from our neighbouring countries. Essentially, it will depend on whether we act for fundamental change or use the CFC as window dressing, branding or city-boosterism.

2) Dr Karen Malone of The University of Western Sydney, Aus, is Chair, Child Friendly Asia Pacific and UNESCO Asia Pacific Director Child Friendly City Asia-Pacific. She is highly respected and inspiring to professionals and academics in the Asia-Pacific region. However, no representatives from UNICEF Australia are here to support her work and the region – although UNICEF representatives from poorer countries have been significant contributors.

3) The CFC movement in Australia has a lot to learn from the poorer countries – especially Indonesia and the Philippines which have made phenomenal gains in governance, programs, and advocacy. Unfortunately, there were only 5 of us here – and we’re all academics.

4) I decided not to present at this conference, and I am glad I did not. However, I had the honour of chairing the special session on Children Risk and Natural Disasters. The task of listening, summarising the speaker’s talks and discussions, and pin-pointing the essential elements of the session was far more valuable.

Our speakers represented Indonesia,Japan, Pakistan, India/Nepal (same person). Each country had different approaches to the natural disasters that affected their regions. Of particular significance for me were the different risk management systems, governance structures, knowledge, skills, funding, response times… It made me realise that we need to better understand how risk is conceived and enacted within different cultures.

It also made me realised that we have the potential to prevent children from grieving, healing, rebuilding if we protect them from the realities of their experiences. We cannot neglect, trivialise or dismiss difficult, painful, scary, etc events/situations, and their scars. Equally, we cannot neglect, trivialise or dismiss children’s contribution to the re-organisation and rebuilding of their lives, their environments and their communities. If we simplistically see events as traumatic and children as victims to traumas, we undermine children’s capacity to heal, grow, and transform their experiences.

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Ah… the school holidays. What will your kids be doing? Will you leave them home alone? A recent article in The Age addressed this very issue.

I read it with interest due to some conversations I have been having my 10 year old friend. We’ve been discussing trust, independence, and staying home over the holidays. This particular 10 year old is most affronted that his mum won’t let him stay home alone during holidays. He believes she doesn’t trust him to be responsible. He is craving the opportunity to spend time on his own and prove his growth and maturity. On the other hand, his mum is concerned about leaving him on his own, or with his 8 year old brother for a full day – a couple of hours at a time are enough for her.

One idea we had was to allow the boys to take the train to come visit me for a few days. The ride to my town from the city is 1.5 hours. About 2 months ago, my friend would never have considered this option. However, having taken the train with her boys a couple of times, she believes they are competent and responsible enough to do it. The biggest issue is V-Line, the train service running between the city and my town. Supposedly, V-Line does not allow children under 14 travel by themselves.

This raises a real issue for me. The message is strong that children’s competence is being measured by age and not experience and maturity. That is, children should not be allowed to do basic things until they are teenagers regardless of their skills. I find this repugnant because I have been helping the boys learn how to negotiate their urban environment and my town environment. For example, the kids took the tram in Melbourne by themselves in an area they knew well, and I met them at a designated location (I was on my bike). Another time, the kids cycled to my house from the train station at night with bright flashing lights, and instructions to stay on the pathway and double check for cars since drivers don’t expect to see cyclists in the dark. These lessons help the boys learn about the potential hazards they may encounter, how to problem-solve different settlement and traffic conditions, and most importantly, enjoy basic mobility such as walking, cycling and taking public transport.

How can we help kids incrementally become independent and responsible when the policies and other structures around us demand that children are either incompetent or already able?

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Stand up or put up? Which gets the best outcomes?

I’ve been observing the media attention on the bullied boy who had enough, and stood up to an attacker. He’s become a bit of a hero, and I can see why. Many of us have been n situations when niggling between people crosses the fuzzy line and becomes abuse, and many of us would love to stand up to our ‘attackers’, but have felt unable due to personal, professional, social and other reasons.

However, are we really teaching ‘stand up or put up’ through our schools. The response of the boy being bullied is in direct conflict with my understanding policy and guidelines within the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development (DEECD) in Victoria and perhaps, elsewhere. For example, it is stated on the DEECD website “Give sensible advice – don’t encourage your child to fight back, this will most likely increase the bullying”.

I don’t like this whole webpage, the advice provided, and its underlying assumptions. Here are some of my reasons why:

Bullying is defined as: “”Bullying is when someone, or a group of people, who have more power at the time, deliberately upset or hurt another person on more than one occasion. Bullying includes physical bullying such as hitting; verbal bullying such as name calling;and indirect bullying such as spreading rumours”.

This definition doesn’t include notions of systematic and ongoing abuse. This means it is possible for children to use the system to engage in their own bullying if something happens more than once. Where is the space between kids learning socially how to negotiate difference and kids engaging in bullying behaviour?

Different personalities, experiences, and reactions are not considered. If great books like Andrew Fuller’s Tricky People: How To Deal With Horrible Types Before They Ruin Your Life exist to help us deal with different personality traits, surely we should accept diversity within children’s social interactions. Some bullies may stop if confronted, some will enlist others or increase their torment. Others will view silence, walking away etc. as forms of weakness, and may try harder to provoke a reaction.

There is no information about what children should do if they are being physically cornered, poking/prodding/punching or other physical contact is continuous or unceasing, chased or is in genuine fear of physical harm. Children should be able to physically defend themselves if required and not be penalised for doing so. Genuine self-defense is recognised by law, but not in schools e.g. the boy defending himself was also suspeded.

There is no discussion about the potential consequences if a child does not report being bullied, or if the matter isn’t addressed properly by the school. This could provide the space and confidence for the bully to continue, target other people, increase their activities, or become more stealthy in their activities.

There is also encouragement to avoid places where bullying may occur. While it is wise for children to be aware of their surroundings and the social interactions that should/can occur, this advice does not provide guidance in relation to other situations. If bullying occurs on a sports team, in the playground, in a science area, etc… the child may be turning away from activities and places they really enjoy. Rather than learn that they have a right to their interests and the spaces where these interests occur, children may learn it is more important to put their interests aside in order to avoid conflict. Sometimes strength comes from claiming rights to interests, places and spaces.

I am really left wondering why should children not stand up for themselves? Why does there always have to be adult mediation? What are the consequences for future social relations?

Walking away, being mature, being ‘nice’ and all of that, has it’s place, but issues of dignity, strength, and self-efficacy also need to be appropriately considered.

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Accident & injury stats – Almost fear mongering with pretty ordinary stats

In the Hearld Sun on Monday 14 February, there was an article about the number of kids experiencing ‘serious’ accidents in playgrounds. The article mentioned Monash University Accident Research Centre study results, and a few numbers dance around the text: 1505 kids had a serious accident; together, kids can spend up to 30 days at hospital per year; 41% of all serious accidents are associated with climbing equipment; 85% of injuries are broken bones of which most related to arm (75%); and 2/3 of accidents occur amongst 5-9 years.

What I find interesting is that the article was trying to create drama using threat and danger with really mundane information that seems to highlight the issue is not about accidents, but a lack of intense playing. The numbers of children who go to hospital are described as ‘staggering’, and an example is provided in relation to a little boy who broke his neck. This led me to check just how ‘staggering’ the figures were, and whether broken necks are the sort of serious accidents the stats referred to.

Serious accidents account for about 0.2% of Victoria’s child population (671,225 aged 0-9 as of June 2010, ABS statistics). I tried to find the research that this data refers to, but I couldn’t. I did find a different report from the Monash University Accident Research Centre that found children’s hospital admissions for ‘unintentional’ injury and poison decreased nearly 23% 1996 – 2009, and the majority of accidents happened at home, with school a distant second. I also found out that the majority of ‘serious’ injuries are broken arms. Broken arms, while they may be broken in more or less damaging ways, are unfortunate, but do not belong in the same category as a broken neck.

This seems pretty good to me, or even pretty low – are kids playing hard enough? Imagine if we kept statistics on a different set of questions. What if we broadened our questions beyond location, type of injury and activity? What things would you ask?

Here’s the start to my list (depending on the situation):
o Were you having fun?
o Was this the first time you tried that, or was it a freak accident?
o When you’re healed, how long do you think it will take you to get that trick right?
o Etc.

I think one of my earlier posts says it all, and says it best, so take a look.

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What does risk really mean for the education industry?

I was very privileged to have a short article printed online in the Curriculum Leadership Journal, a journal for people working in education in Australia and New Zealand (

It got me thinking: What does risk management really mean for teachers, curriculum designers, administrators and others in the education industry? Is the quality of students learning experiences being impacted? Are the political issues of stigma and blame a major factor in decision-making? Are a small number of parents having too much impact on education systems, or is the shift toward greater caution a widespread turn for the better?

I suspect that many in the education industry are frustrated at times due to risk management activities such as consent forms or the disappointment of activities being banned or no longer supported. I also suspect that many are glad that they are protected by certain aspects of risk management policy and procedures. How are people in the industry managing the benefits and the costs of risk management?

I look forward to your observations.


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Go Kart, Billy Cart… and thoughts about town/urban planning and design!

A friend came to visit me in the ‘country’ (or peri-urban development if you prefer) last weekend with her two kids (aged 8 and 10). Knowing that there are certain things that kids cannot do in a small inner-city flat, I took the opportunity to get them involved in a small project… the construction of a go kart, billy cart – whatever you want to call it. While I had to dissuade them initially from the swish, polished car-kit kind, it did not take long. They are smart kids and realised that I was on to something when I noted that our mutual inexperience meant we should start off small and simple. So this is what we did:

– We found a simple design on the internet:
– Made a list of the tools and materials required;
– Did the conversions from imperial to metric measurements; and
– Went to the hardware store (the old kind without all the packaging), had a chat with the salesperson, and bought our things.

The kids decided they wanted to paint the kart at one point, so we did a list, and off they went about 1km down the road to the hardware shop a second time.

The kids did most of the work – I was only there to guide them. They measured, marked, learned to handsaw, drill, tighten, and sand. They discovered the difference between regular nuts and safety nuts. The kids painted, did stencilling (‘Aussie Go Kart’ and ‘Made by G and B’), and washed up with mineral turps and then soap and water. Importantly, they discovered very quickly that when it came to ensuring that they used the tools consciously, consciensciously and safely, I was worse than an army sargeant!

We had such a good time! When it came to playing… They got cut and scraped, and they fell off. They loved it.

I started to wonder: Do familiies have a better chance of keeping sane if kids can be sent out on their own for a while? Do kids themselves need to be sent out on their own for a while? Is constantly sharing the same space too intense? Does it impact on the ability to relax, calm down during or after an altercation, give enough ‘space’ to dream or reflect? My observations suggested that we as adults have some time to switch off and do our own thing, while sending the kids out over the weekend resulted in a subtle shift in maturity, independence and competence as they learned something about their own abilities – observations that are likely to be old hat for parents and guardians.

My reflections of the weekend took my thoughts to issues of urban design, higher density living, and planning as they relate to child-rearing. Combined with the residue of a couple of conversations with friends who had recently returned from Israel and Japan, I asked myself: while we’ve come up with the notion of suburbs and built many towns/cities (or parts of them) around this notion, have we fooled ourself that there is a ‘middle’ ground between towns and denser urban centres?

Where I live, places are walkable, parks are nearby, many would consider the area to be socially ‘safe’ – I suspect more kids go places and do things without adults – safety might come with familiarity, greater social trust, etc. In places like Israel, Japan, Sri Lanka there is medium-high or very high density (in Israel and Sri Lanka, at least, high public use of streets for socialising) – I suspect more kids go places and do things without adults, and safety might come in numbers e.g. more kids in one place, more adults able to observe kids. Research seems to support these observations.

So where does this leave suburban-type development in multicutultural Australia?

While some families might go a bit mad, or live very intense lives (or perhaps distant lives if they have to ‘shut-off’ due to the intensity), some may have other release valves, or some may be unaffected. A friend of mine noted that for some cultures, the inside of the home is the most important place, and the external world outside the home has very little significance. So where does it leave the sanity of different types of families living in the suburbs?

I have brought up far too many things for consideration, but I welcome any thoughts on the issues.

I know there are academic papers about these issues out there, but I am not sure if these issues have been studied in relation to regional, urban, and social planning. When I have time I will trawl through the research search engines (I am happy for help!), and will provide references for those who are interested.

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