Risk and its Importance in Forest Schools Programmes for Learning and Development
“It is argued that taking risks can have positive implications in terms of children’s developmental, social and emotional needs, as well as their overall health. By providing the opportunities for children to manage their own risks in a controlled environment, they will learn vital life skills needed for adulthood, and gain the experience needed to face the unpredictable nature of the world.” (Gill, 2007)
Excellent quote from Tim Gill; But what does it actually mean for us? You know that I am proponent of the idea that we assume nothing presume nothing.
So what exactly do you, I, we understand by this; what is a controlled environment for example; what does it mean specifically, how controlled, how free; what do we expose our children to; what do we do to protect; what do we allow; what do we manage and what do we allow children through different age cohorts to manage for themselves – specifically?
These questions are fundamental to our understanding and then to the relationship that we have with the environment, with our staff, with our school governors, with our parents and with our children themselves. They are key to how we then go about supporting learning and development through our programmes over the course of their schooling years.
Forest Schools has a core ethos regarding child-centered learning and the offer of play to children whilst they are attending our programmes. But how can we actually incorporate the principles of play and is this process in a reasonable and acceptable and totally realistic way? How do we incorporate free play experiences that we are able to plan for, and offer our children at our Forest Schools programme throughout each session, or if this is planned can it actually be free play at all?
Play Wales (2008) states that play means ‘…providing opportunities for all children to encounter or create uncertainty, unpredictability, and potential hazards as part of their play. We do not mean putting children in danger of serious harm.’
It was Play England in 2007 that can maybe answer this question for us
‘Good risks and hazards in play provision are those that engage and challenge children, and support their growth, learning and development. These might include… loose materials that give children the chance to create and destroy constructions using their skill, creativity and imagination.’
So we are in the woods, out in the wild unfettered environment and we are allowing our children to go and explore and investigate and to get into their deep learning states that promotes learning and emotional connections. Excellent, we need to do no more, our session is sorted! We just sit back and observe and monitor what’s happening and all is well that ends well. Our Forest Schools leader role is complete. Our children go to play and to find and to build and to destroy and to jump and pretend and imagine and fantasies, and rough and tumble, jump, climb and role play and recapitulate and dramatise.
Oh but hang on
‘Bad risks and hazards are those that are difficult or impossible for children to assess for themselves, and that have no obvious benefits. These might include sharp edges or points on equipment, weak structures that may collapse, and items that include traps for heads or fingers.’ (Play England 2007)
But how do we know what a bad risk is for one child and the exact same thing may not be for another?
As a forest Schools Practitioner qualified to Level 3 you are the Safety Officer. That means you are responsible under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 to eliminate exposure to significant risks that could cause harm to people, the environment and to things or equipment.
But how will you actually know what is significant, or unsuitable for your group to be exposed to? You will base your decisions on the physical, cognitive and linguistic skills of your children, individually. How do you know what these are? It is through your baseline assessments and through Procedural documentation and Risk Assessment processes. But of course these will be balanced by your Benefits Analysis carried out against each identified hazard as well. These are provided to evidence that as a qualified Level 3 Forest Schools practitioner you thought about, assessed and monitored any identified significant risks to your group. But your job is to balance this and not eliminate all risks entirely.
‘Children and young people themselves recognise that ‘you can’t make everything safe’ and that a balance is needed between risks and fun (and the opportunity to be put into situations that may contain risk, but that without this exposure learning could not take place in any dimension – SB (2105) . Children recognise that knowing about risks and how to manage them is an essential part of growing up… Through play, children are able to learn about risks and use their own initiative. If children and young people are not allowed to explore and learn through playing and taking part in positive activities, they will not learn how to judge risks and manage them for themselves. These skills learnt through play and other activities can act as a powerful form of prevention in other situations where children and young people are at risk.’ (Play England, 2007)
Dweck (2000) states that:
‘encouraging children to enjoy challenges rather than to shy away from them could also increase their persistence and learning abilities.’ And we are reading more and more to support this view in the papers and in the news. Children are becoming so mollycoddled and protected that certain traits like independence, resilience, creativity and confidence are being eroded away.
Playwork Principle 8 says:
‘Playworkers choose an intervention style that enables children and young people to extend their play. All playworker intervention must balance risk with the developmental benefit and well-being of children.’
Principle 8 allows us as Forest Schools Practitioners make a decision based on the prescribed process of risk-benefit analysis or assessment. TO reiterate what we mean here, if there is an identified hazard, what is the benefit or good that a child or group of children will gain from exposure to that particular hazard in the course of our experiences that we offer as part of the Forest Schools programme? Also, does the benefit outweigh the detrimental affects that this hazard could have on the child or group if they were exposed to it whilst in our care? Is the hazards affects serious or life threatening and if so how can these be managed in such a way that the child can still be exposed to due to other learning benefits that may be available.
Hazards provide opportunities for learning and development.
‘In a playground, (woodland – SB 2015) bumps, bruises scrapes and even a broken limb are not necessarily warning signs of greater dangers, as they might be considered in a factory or office environment. They are to be expected as part of everyday life for children growing up.
Providers need to decide for themselves what level of risk is appropriate in their provision, because the type and style of provision must be responsive to local circumstances … However, there are benefits from this approach at all levels and for all those involved in play, but above all for the children, who will have happier and more satisfying experiences of childhood with richer opportunities for healthy growth and development into competent and confident adults.’ (Play England, 2007)
What Are the benefits children, young people, and others will gain as a result of this experience?
Consider Physical, intellectual, Linguistic, Emotional, Social and spiritual.
Think creatively and identify IN DETAIL
What are the options of enhancing those benefits and what are the pros and cons for each one?
- Increase the opportunities for engagement (with good risk).
- Do nothing.
- Monitor the situation (including supervision).
- Increase the reach of the benefit.
- The benefit is not significant enough compared to the risk involved
What are the Risks that children young people, and others will be exposed to?
What are the options for managing the risk, and what are the pros, cons and costs of each?
- Decrease the opportunities for engagement (with bad risk).
- Do nothing.
- Monitor the situation (including supervision).
- Lessen or manage the risk.
- Remove the risk.
So we are now considering the consequences of our actions and one thing that Forest Schools Education gets asked quite often is about the Risk and likelihood of harm occurring and what is done to safeguard children. Well. In answer to that every probably and possible precautions, protections and insurances are put into place. These include deep level and constructive training processes that ensure that trainees follow procedure and process when opening an opportunity to encounter the riskier experiences. This includes safe working practices and these are to be unconsciously understood and participated in before any adult is permitted or entitled to use their skills with the children. Archimedes ensures that this is the case and as such we are confident in the preservation of child safety and wellbeing. We are not saying, however, that children will not encounter risk or acceptable harm along the way.
‘It is highly unlikely that a competent play worker will ever be taken to court and successfully prosecuted for negligence because the safeguards that we put in place to protect both ourselves and the children are sensible and show that we have a professional approach to risk.’ – (Play Wales, 2008)
Many of our children are building up their skills in terms of physical strength, dexterity, their resilience to be able to cope with failure and things that don’t go quite right for them, to understand altruism and awe and wonder, to be allowed to encounter Risk as Tim Gill suggest, sound judgment about themselves and others and the world around them develop as a consequence of being given opportunity to work at and to problem solve and to reflect on their experiences appropriately.
It is exactly the same with us as an adult or a Forest Schools Practitioner and as a result, we will be finding our own feet as we develop our skills in this new and flourishing industry we find ourselves. We need to feel comfortable and we need to feel able and flexible in our thinking in order to allow children to explore within their boundaries and for us not to be fearful to empower children in their play and leaning at Forest Schools. However, this comes with experience and as experience develops so does a broader understand of empathy and common sense can begin to prevail. ,
There is a pressure point where society influences the decisions and choices of parents and educational establishments and it is the responsibility of the Forest Schools practitioner who has a broad picture, the correct training and a personal confidence to balance this potential ‘cotton-wooling’ of our generations. Creativity comes from the explosion of thought and innovation, this will inevitably contain some aspect of risk and this is to be positively encouraged at Forest Schools. However this also needs to be managed well in order to allow children to be entrusted into our care and one of the best ways that this can be done is simply through enabling adults and decision makers to encounter Forest Schools for themselves as there is no boundaries to it no restrictions on age, culture, location, gender and ability.
Risk is not a scary thing when it is a perceived risk and when the Forest Schools practitioner, thought their own experience and understanding of the individual child, the group and the environment understands the extent of the risk and the consequential harms that could happen. They also have a deep understanding of the processes involved in minimizing those risks and as such can allow children to experiment within safe and acceptable boundaries of behaviours.
Research is showing that Forest Schools extends thought processes, encourages freedom, allows the development of creativity, understanding of self and others and the world around them
Play England (2008) ‘Managing Risk in Play Provision: Implementation Guide’
Play Wales (2008) ‘A Playworker’s Guide to Risk’
www.playwales.org.uk/login/uploaded/documents/INFORMA TION%2 0SHEETS/playworkers%20guide%20to%20risk.pdf
Simon Nicholson’s ‘Theory of Loose Parts’
Bristol Scrapstore’s PlayPods project
Play Englands ‘Play, Naturally’ project
Dweck (2000) ‘Self-theories: their role in motivation, personality and development’
Gill (2007) ‘No Fear: growing up in a risk adverse society’
Play England (2008) ‘Managing Risk in Play Provision: Implementation Guide’ Download from http://www.playengland.org.uk/resources/managing-risk-in-play-provision-implementation-guide
Play Wales (2008) ‘A Playworker’s Guide to Risk’ Download from