Every good parent knows that there is nothing more important in the world than the health and safety of their child. So “is Forest School safe?” is a very important question. The answer, in a word, is no. Anytime you take a child out of the sanitized and ‘safe’ confines of a classroom or indoor learning environment there will be an increased level of risk. Uneven ground, sharp sticks, broken branches hanging above and a slew of other possibly dangerous hazards decorate the outdoor learning environment and when you feature in outside play and the inherent human errors it makes learning outside seem like an extraordinarily risky endeavor. Rather than shy away or overprotect children, the Forest School philosophy embraces risk and not only establishes standards by which to manage risk in certain situations but also encourages healthy risk taking and understanding of hazards and risks as a vital component of the learning experience.
Through play in nature at Forest School, the children’s decision-making and risk-assessment skills are honed. Children learn from the mistakes that they make and by assessing a situation’s benefits and negatives. The philosophy of Forest School focuses on real experiences, be it through play, tool use, shelter building or a variety of other activities, and that involves meeting and dealing with a variety of challenges. Using the example of climbing a tree, children learn much more from the experience of climbing, meeting and pushing their comfort level, even when it results in a fall, than they do by being told not to climb trees because it is dangerous. Taking risks, and learning how to identify and deal with risk, is a part of children’s natural development and without question a vitally important life skill. Engaging in risk-taking activities support the holistic development of the child. Risk-taking engages the child cognitively in terms of decision making and problem solving as well as physically (the activities themselves) and the tangible results that derive from taking risks and improving support self-confidence and emotional resiliency thus engaging the emotional and spiritual domains of development.
It is the role of the Forest School leader to ensure that children are not exposed to an unacceptable level of risk. Formats of risk assessment may vary from program to program but may follow this general sequence: identify the hazard, decide who may be harmed and how, evaluate the risk (Likelihood x Consequence = Risk) and decide on any precautions, record your findings and implement any control actions and review the assessment and update as necessary. There are also numerous different types of risk-assessments that may be necessary. These include; seasonal site risk assessments, activity or experience risk assessment, individuals risk assessment, daily risk assessment or dynamic risk assessment. The job of assessing risk is shared with the students of Forest School and with practice identifying hazards and risks they become direct contributors to the process. When assessing the risk of an activity a Forest School leader employ a risk-benefit assessment model. Balance between risk and benefit is complicated and often requires subjective judgment. A leader must take many things into account and may use everyday expertise, skills and knowledge or require specialist expertise to accurately assess risks.
In our Forest School experience we have observed various different types of risk taking. One striking example comes from a five-year-old boy who just recently became verbal. He found his role in a fantasy play game a couple of the girls were playing about building fairy houses by climbing up to the highest branches of a maple tree to harvest the biggest, greenest leaves for them to use as the roof. This positive risk taking for him not only relates to the physical aspect of pushing himself to the highest branches he could but also to the social risk taking for him pushing his comfort zone by playing in a situation he rarely has had opportunity to outside of Forest School. Tool use at our Forest School was also a key risk taking activity. Whether it be an older child’s desire to make a wood mallet, a multi-session project involving learning to work with the bow saw and the knife, a five year old asking on the last session to try and learn how to sharpen a stick with a knife or a group of kids using a chisel and mallet to harvest pieces of quartz from a mine area while also managing their own risk of fires by spraying water on the sparks, learning how to safely use tools and how to mitigate the risk to their own health and safety are valuable lessons that result in increased confidence and self esteem. The participants of our Forest School are also directly involved at the start of each day in identifying new hazards to our areas (branches blown by wind, glass, holes to trip in etc.) and discussing how we can manage the risk these hazards entaile to provide ourselves the most safe but also fun landscape with which to work. This inclusive practice gives the participants not only the skills to identify risks to their safety but also the ownership over the act of managing their own safety.
Risk plays a vital role to the child’s learning experience in Forest School. Children are encouraged to engage in healthy risk-taking behaviour in order to take advantage of the body and mind benefits inherent in such activities. They are also directly involved in identifying hazards and recognizing risks on a daily basis. The complicated role of the leader is to support them along their risk-literacy journey but also ensure that children are not put in unacceptably risky situations by comprehensively assessing the risk of all potentially hazardous sites and activities. No, Forest School is not safe but it isn’t meant to be! So is it worth the risk? Absolutely. Cuts and bruises heal but the positive effects of strong self-esteem and resilience built in childhood last a lifetime.