I suppose some people would think I'm a bit cold hearted when they hear me say, "Crying is a sign that someone is learning." It's not that I want a child to cry, it's rather that I've come to accept that tears are an inevitable and important byproduct of how young children learn. When I first started teaching, I instinctively reacted to crying as a sign of failure, rushing to the scene to sooth them through to the other side as quickly as possible. I'm still concerned when a wail goes up, after all it could be a sign that my first aid training is being called into play, but more often than not, I'll pause, then say to the children in my immediate vicinity, "Someone is crying. I wonder if they're sad, mad or hurt."
Of course, as a teacher in a cooperative preschool, I'm counting on one of our several parent-teachers to let me know if I'm needed, which frees me up to engage in a speculative conversation with other children about the reason for our classmate's tears. Often one or more of the kids will scout out the situation and return with facts to aid us in our guessing game. Aidan hit his head on the cabinet. Sophia pinched her finger in the doll house.
Armed with these kinds of details we can really sink our teeth into things. When it's about injuries, it's striking how often the adult solution differs from that arrived at by the children. Adults, more often than not, instinctively come down on the side of removing or altering the situation to prevent future injuries. We'll put padding on the cabinet or somehow alter the doll house hinge so that it will no longer pinch. Children, however, nearly always come down on the side of be more careful.
The kids are right, of course. Even if we could pad all the corners and alter all the hinges in our classroom, we can't pad the world beyond our fences, and that is, after all, what education is all about: preparing children for the world beyond the school.
That's why we, as a community, have started focusing on helping children get in the habit of performing their own risk assessments, taking responsibility for their own safety.
Some children are "reckless" or "impulsive" by nature while others have been lulled into a false sense of security by virtue of having lived so much of their lives in "child proof" settings. I've come to the realization that contrary to keeping children safer, what we've come to call "child proofing" is in many cases actually increasing the odds of injury down the road. At conventional playgrounds, for instance, kids just swarm up ladders without hesitation, but in the real world ladders are fraught with hazard and must be carefully tested and stabilized before they're safe to climb. When "fall zones" are covered in spongy tiles the consequences of knee drops aren't nearly as severe as those on real world pavements.
The idea of preschool "risk assessment" is to ask children the questions you want them to learn to habitually ask themselves, "Does this look safe?" "Can I walk on it/jump from it/play with it without injuring myself or others?" "What can we do to make it safer?" And unless a child is on the verge of an impending serious injury, we try to avoid unsupported declarations like, "That's not safe!" or "You'll hurt yourself!" because those kinds of adult statements tend to supercede the child's own judgement, leading them to doubt their own ability to assess the situation.
Of course, I might say something like, "I'll bet it would hurt to pinch my finger in that hinge." I might even follow that up by saying, "Maybe you should try it and tell me if it hurts." No child ever tries it. While plugging in a glue gun, I once said to a group of older kids, "Have you ever tried sticking your finger into an electrical outlet?" They came down on me like a house of bricks, "If we did that Teacher Tom, we would die!" This was a group of kids prepared for the real world where most outlets aren't protected by those little plastic covers.
When Lachlan later burned his own finger on a glue gun, through his tears, he said, "I burned myself because I wasn't paying attention." This is a boy who knows that safety isn't a mysterious adults-only activity. Avoiding injury is his job too.