At Forest School, taking risks is a big part of what we get up to in a day! Before you get your tummy in too big a knot, let us explain a bit about risk and why we feel it is important to promote and embrace risk at forest school, We'll also explain what we do to manage risk so that everyone has fun instead of getting hurt!
What is Risk?
According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, risk is the possibility that something bad or unpleasant (such as an injury or a loss) will happen.
Whether we want to admit it or not, life is full of risks! From the moment we step out of bed in the morning, we are faced with an almost continuous flow of very real challenges and choices that involve risk. Some are common and approached almost subconsciously such as walking up or down a flight of stairs while others are more specialized and force us to be more aware of our choices and actions such as driving a car or deciding whether or not to take on a new job outside our experience or location.
Appropriate risk taking supports holistic learning and development
So why do we embrace and promote risk forest school?
Our thoughts are that if risk is a natural part of life then learning to recognize risk and determining if the risk is worth the benefits is an essential life skill for children to learn in order to take ownership of their own safety and well-being (Forest and Nature School in Canada, 2014, pg. 40). The outdoor setting of Forest School also offers an environment where children have ample opportunity to learn and develop risk management skills. From the ever-changing topography, weather conditions and openness of the environment, Forest School presents very real challenges where risk must be taken and navigated daily.
By engaging in risky activities, children learn about hazards (i.e. unexpected dangers) associated with taking risks and can then learn to develop strategies such as using appropriate behaviours or key safety equipment to navigate hazards in order to minimize risk. Through experience they learn to develop the critical skill of automatically assessing risks for potential hazards before engaging in an activity. This sets children up to learn that although risks can be anywhere, they don't necessarily have to be feared so long as they keep vigilant of hazards and assess the risks on a case-by-case basis.
The exhilaration of taking risks can also motivate children to learn and may even have an evolutionary advantage according to early childhood researcher, Ellen Sandseter. She states that "Risky play is a set of motivated behaviors that both provide the child with an exhilarating positive emotion and expose the child to the stimuli they previously have feared. As the child’s coping skills improve, these situations and stimuli may be mastered and no longer be feared." This means that by engaging in risky play, children become less fearful or "phobic" of some situations we must encounter as we go through life (eg. heights) and are generally less likely to develop mental health problems such as anxiety.
By sharing risky play and experiences with other children such as climbing to the top of a tree or jumping from one stump to another, children are given the opportunity to learn holistically from from each other and from the environment they are in. In the process, children not only master healthy risk taking, but they also grow emotionally intelligent and develop healthy levels of confidence and positive self-esteem through their shared experiences with others.
Here is a video of one of our forest school children learning to climb a tree from one of his peers.
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.
One of the most important tools we use before encouraging a child to engage in a risky activity is to do a risk/benefit assessment. This is a very in-depth evaluation of the level of risk versus the benefits of the activity and involves identifying hazards and developing necessary control measures to minimize the level of risk from engaging in the activity.
In an every day life example; lets examine how we learn to safely go up and down stairs.
For those of you who have spent time around young children, you probably remember the knots in your stomach as you watched a toddler learn to independently climb/walk up and down stairs. You probably felt this way because of the risk that the child may fall down the stairs and get injured (or worse!).
But rather than keep them off the stairs entirely, you recognized that being able to use stairs is a necessary part of life (ie. benefit) and you now need to help them learn healthy habits (ie. control measures) to go up and down the stairs safely. To teach them to be safe on the stairs, you may have held their hand and had them hold onto the hand railing or wall for balance as they went up or down the stairs. You may have asked them to walk, not run or jump, as they took each step one-at-a-time and perhaps you preferred them to wear shoes or socks with a non-slip grip. This may have taken some time for the child to learn to do all of these things properly and without reminders, but eventually they were able to demonstrate their competence and you were able to gain the confidence and trust in them to let go and let them do it themselves.
This is a very natural and, I dare say, almost universal example of how we can encourage and support children to learn basic strategies for risk management. It is also the very method we use at forest school to encourage and support children to approach and navigate risky activities.
Case Study: Tree Climbing
To take the stair climbing example a step further an into the context of a risky Forest School activity, here is a video of some of our Forest Preschoolers engaging in the risky activity of tree climbing. We posted this video on Facebook in our first year of programming and the social media conversation it started on risk was enormous! Have a look and see for yourself!
As you can tell from the laughter and chatter amongst themselves, these three preschoolers are having a great time climbing this lovely spruce tree. I expect for some people, they may have been a bit uncomfortable watching this video; perhaps nervous someone was going to fall and get hurt. I expect others may have felt a warm flutter of nostalgia - re-living their own childhood memories of climbing trees.
Why do you think you feel the way you do? Has your experience with climbing trees been a positive or negative one? What was it about your experience that made it that way?
In the tree climbing video, these children have gradually worked up to climbing to this height through the support of trained, forest school educators. We encourage children to try these kinds of risky activities as a way to help them learn risk management. When supported by a confident and trusted adult, the children learn about what to look out for during such an activity for their own safety and those of others while also challenging themselves physically, mentally and emotionally as they navigate their own way through the activity.
Here is a list of some of the benefits of tree climbing:
Tree climbing is good exercise. It is not only fun, but also an excellent workout. Although it's not nearly as demanding as it appears, climbing is great exercise for the arms and legs. Climbers work many muscle groups they often don't use elsewhere, and climbing is also great for the spine. The extra bonus to this exercise is that it is stimulating and never boring!
Trees are almost everywhere! You don't have to look far to find a good climbing tree, especially if you're in a natural area.
All your senses come alive. A whole new perspective is added to the climbing experience through the feeling of touch as the tree moves and sound as the wind whistles through the leaves. Many people find peace and relaxation in the branches of a tree.
Tree climbing is cost-effective. Trees are almost everywhere, are free and generally require very little maintenance. While trees need to be inspected regularly for health and safety, nature has done most of the work for us to create a perfect climbing structure!
Tree climbing is a year-round sport. During the warm weather months, you have the tree's canopy to provide an awning for shade. In winter, the absence of leaves welcomes the sunlight and evergreens provide some protection from the cold wind.
Children can learn many emotional and social skills through tree climbing. They become emotionally intelligent, which is the ability to identify and manage your own emotions and the emotions of others by learning how to offer encouragement and support to their peers and within themselves.
Children also learn how to carrying out instructions, navigate hazards by tuning into their personal safety, awareness and consideration of others. As they work to reach their goals of reaching a certain height in a tree they learn patience, persistence and resilience while boosting their self-esteem and confidence when they meet their goals and feel a sense of achievement.
For more information on risk and it's benefits for child development, please check out these great articles and blog posts on risk:
The Risk of No Risk from Nature Play Solutions Blog
Can Child Injury Prevention include healthy risk promotion? from Injury Prevention
Risky play and skinned knees are key to healthy child development by Andrea Gordon