Owen had been trying for quite some time to confidently climb a tree. Unlike many of the other children, he preferred to practice climbing on his own as he liked to have no distractions. To find Parker helping Owen climb the tree was a wonderful discovery for us educators! We are happy to see Parker, who was already a master tree climber, offering to help Owen. In the process, he demonstrated wonderful emotional intelligence with his confidence, patience and encouragement to Owen. We were equally pleased to find Owen graciously accepting help from his peers and growing in confidence, determination and trust with his fellow student.
These kinds of opportunities for holistic learning can be planted and nurtured in an environment where healthy risks are supported and encouraged such as we embrace at forest school. Later that day, after showing Owen's mother this footage, she said "Owen may not remember learning his ABC's, but I am pretty sure he will remember learning to climb a tree!"
Managing Risk at Forest School
Risk management also involves being able to identify what kind of risks are worth taking; which risks should be avoided and learning how to develop strategies to minimize the risks involved in an activity or experience whether it be a necessary one or one that provides an opportunity for some other kind of outcome or benefit.
Forest School Educators assist children to learn risk-management by supporting them as they attempt to navigate age-appropriate and meaningful levels of risk. If an Educator determines the risk of injury to be medium or high, control measures are implemented to address hazards to minimize the risk of injury as much as possible and make navigating the risk more manageable. As children master and experience more risky activities they learn to gauge what feels safe to them and develop self-regulation strategies to better manage risk in their daily activities.
Educators at Tír na nÓg Forest School evaluate and manage risk by doing daily site risk assessments of the commonly explored areas in our program. We also develop risk-benefit assessments of identifiable risky activities where there is a strong likelihood of serious injury. The need for a risk assessment is determined based on the hazard severity. If an activity has a medium or high level of risk, we will identify hazards and put control measures in place to reduce the risk before engaging in the activity. We review our risk assessments regularly and adjust them according to changes in environmental or other conditions.
Site Risk Assessments
Safety is our number one priority at Forest School. If our environment is not safe or doesn't feel safe, the children are not going to be comfortable to fully engage and learn from what is offered at Forest School. So at the beginning of each Forest School session, our educators complete a site risk assessment of the outdoor classroom before the children can explore the area freely. Like an indoor classroom, we spend so much time in our forest that it doesn't take long to notice when something is out of place!
During our site risk assessments, we scan all levels of the forest for any hazards and either remove any hazards we find (eg. sticks laying on the main paths that could be a tripping hazard or pulling down hanging branches resulting from high winds the night before) or manage them by marking and restricting access to the area until the hazard can be dealt with. We also check structures to make sure they are safe for the children to engage with and look for changes in the environment due to weather events (eg. fallen trees, deep puddles, icy conditions) or animal activity (eg. excrement) or presence.
When all is deemed as safe as can be, we will meet with the children to alert them to any hazards and discuss how we should manage them. For example, if there is a hanging branch that we cannot reach to remove right away, the children may decide to put up flagging tape to mark off the unsafe area and will avoid playing in that area. By involving the children in the process, they learn stewardship for the natural environment they enjoy and take responsibility for their actions and those of others. The children also learn that they have to always be mindful of their surroundings because things can change and that it is nothing to be afraid of because they know there are steps that can be taken to keep their forest safe for all to enjoy.