Get Children Outdoors

Risky Play and its importance in Forest Schools programmes for Learning and Development

October 16, 2015
Forest School Risky Play


Risky Play

Tim Gill on risk and risky play – ‘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 a 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.


Benefits Analysis – Risk Assessment and Play at Archimedes Forest Schools

Play at Forest Schools and exposure to Risky Play

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 help to 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 promote 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 dramatize.

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, your Benefits Analysis carried out against each identified hazard as well will balance these. 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 recognize 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 recognize 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 learned 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.

Play work 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 to 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 effects that this hazard could have on the child or group if they were exposed to it whilst in our care? Are 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 and risky play 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)


Considerations when analyzing Benefits and Risks


What Are the benefits children, young people, and others will gain as a result of this risky play 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 

•  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 

•  Lessen or manage the risk.

•  Remove the risk.



You participate in the baseline observations of your children. You also complete a baseline observation of your site – the Phase one Survey and you bring the information from these tow processes together in order to make a value judgment as to whether the site is appropriate for the children. And you also make a decision as to whether the children are right for the site,

As newly qualified Forest Schools Practitioners it is likely that we are still taking baby steps in some areas of our practice and one of these may be the over protection of our children. We need to build up our own confidence in allowing children to be willing and able to manage themselves and to identify their own boundaries of behaviours in order to protect and look after themselves.

WE will find that some children have never had the opportunity to be exposed to risks themselves, and so the like us may have to be encouraged to challenge themselves to try something new and potentially risky. They and us together, on our journeys of discovery can build our confidence so that this leads to new skills and ridging and scaffolding from our starting points to making positive and realistic judgments as to our own competencies and capabilities.

Extended Reading

  • Play Wales (2008) ‘A Play worker’s Guide to Risk’
  • Simon Nicholson’s ‘Theory of Loose Parts’
  • Bristol Scrapstore’s PlayPods project –
  • Dweck (2000) ‘Self-theories: their role in motivation, personality and development’
  • Gill (2007) ‘No Fear: growing up in a risk adverse society’
  • Play Wales (2008) ‘A Play worker’s Guide to Risk’ Download from


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