Friday, March 04, 2016

Catastrophic Thinking

I hadn't posted anything here about our balloon cage for a long time and I remember now why I've been avoiding it. I find myself getting irritated with all the folks who feel compelled to remind me that balloons are "dangerous."

To set the record straight, balloons are not dangerous: leaving a baby alone with a popped balloon is dangerous. The balloons themselves are fun, simple, inexpensive toys, that if used by older children with adult supervision, are perfectly safe for play. They have a built-in safety mechanism as well: when one pops, it makes an explosive noise, one that tends to startle us, signaling that there are balloon parts on the floor. When that happens in the balloon cage, we call out, "Stop!" (both adults and kids) find those parts so "babies don't try to eat them" (there are no babies in the room), throw the pieces in a garbage can, then go back to playing. Balloon safety is really quite simple.

Listen, I understand that tens of thousands of American children wind up in emergency rooms each due to choking related injuries and that around 70 will die from the experience, and a dozen or so will have choked on balloon parts. It's a terrible thing when children are injured and a tragedy when they die. You can Google it, and find plenty of dire warnings about the hazards of balloons, with statistical claims that will cause even the boldest of us question whether or not balloons should even be allowed to exist. But the reality is that choking on a balloon part is quite rare and almost unheard of when adults are actually doing there job of keeping an eye on things.

This is one of the wonders of our cooperative model where parents work in the classroom with me as my assistant teachers: there are plenty of loving, caring, attentive adults to make sure those balloon parts are picked up even if most of the children we teach are beyond the age that they explore their world by mouthing everything in sight. At any given moment, there are at least two adults in the balloon cage with the kids, playing with them, making sure those balloon parts are thrown out.

And besides, have you tried to pop one of the modern type of latex balloons lately? It's nearly impossible. Many don't even pop when I put my full weight on them. I find I have to jump with two feet.

This meme that "balloons are dangerous" is what I call "catastrophic thinking." If I allow myself, I can think of all manner of equal dangers. In fact, if you have any sort of imagination at all, you can dream up ways for children to be injured or even killed by pretty much anything. Our playground is covered in a layer of wood chips, originally laid down as a way to create a softer "fall zone" over the "hard" dirt, but most of those chips are the perfect size for choking. The worst injury we've encountered during my tenure at Woodland Park was a boy who fell on his chin while walking on a flat, dry linoleum floor, requiring stitches.

I'm not saying that safety isn't important, indeed, it's our number one responsibility: to send the children home relatively unharmed. And we keep first aid kids handy because we know that despite our best efforts, we'll need them. I'm all in favor of removing hazards -- unnecessarily risky things like rusty nails and broken glass -- but balloons? Come on, at least in an environment like ours where there is ample adult supervision. 

Earlier this week, the balloon cage back where it lives in the storage room, gym matts put away, we moved the remaining balloons into the "Cloud Room" where the children who chose, were given free reign to pop them all. That's another thing about the modern balloon: they don't lose their air after a day or two the way balloons did in my childhood. Modern balloons last weeks and weeks and we simply don't have the storage for them, so pop them we must. It's a blast. And after each pop, we "Stop!" find the parts, and throw them away so that "babies won't eat them."

The secret to safety is not padding everything and rounding the corners. It's not banning this or that because, as has been proven over generations, even knives, hammers, and power tools -- heck, even rusty nails and broken glass -- can be played with safely by young children when loving, attentive adults are involved. Indeed, gaining experience with the real world is how children learn to keep themselves safe, which is our ultimate goal. These things only become "dangerous" when adults neglect their primary responsibility.

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purplebeatty said...

I totally agree with your way of thinking. If we think back to our own childhood and remember what we played with and where we played it should give us a good indicator as to how we can play with children today. Most of us grew up in dangerous surroundings, playing with dangerous items and we are all still here. Thanks for expressing your view!

Nerd Girl said...

The kids just younger than mine at our facility have a pool noodle covering their chalkboard tray to cushion the impact. In my room, no pool noodle. And generally, at least 1-2 kids per year hit it and about 50% of the time, it bruises. But I've always maintained that we can't bubble wrap the entire world. And my kids are learning to navigate my classroom and look for things that could hurt them.

Anonymous said...

I appreciate this. In the Montessori preschool I worked in, where the children were routinely allowed to work with knives, hammers, and a host of other tools, we never had a noteworthy accident. The worst accident we had was when one of our little ones tripped on the threshold of a doorway and required stiches. With attentive supervision kids are able to learn how to safely learn to handle and manipulate a whole host of "dangerous" household items.

Anonymous said...

I found this post interesting because I would have never thought so many people would be against balloons. Every year we fill up lots of balloons with water and let the kids play with them. We do this outside so for the purpose of not littering we ask the kids to pick up the popped balloon, but never of fear of the kids choking on the balloon. I teach 3-5 year old students. Last year we had a parent bring in many balloons for his kid's birthday and the kids had a blast with those too. Nothing happened and I didn't think anything would. I guess people can worry about anything if they allow themselves to be worried.

Anonymous said...

I'm so glad you posted this. I was one of the doomsdayers, my worry proceeding straight from what I was told by my doomsday sister 19 years ago when my child was born, which was that when a balloon pops, the loud noise startles you so that you take in a sharp breath and can inhale a piece of balloon as it flies outward. This is what I've always pictured and I thought it made perfect sense. After having done more research just now, I found this: which confirms exactly what you wrote here. Now I want some balloons for my classoom! Thank you, Tom.

Michael Kallweitt said...

It's interesting to hear that the discussion about the danger of balloons in the States seems to centre around the risk of choking, while here in Europe parents are more afraid of chemical additives in the latex. Therefore all balloon packages here contain a warning that balloons shouldn't be inflated by mouth.