Forest School and Taking Risks

How Forest School promotes appropriate risk taking and how this impacts on learning and development

Educational adventure writer Colin Mortlock spoke of ‘four broad stages … in any outdoor journey’ in his book The Adventure Alternative (1984). These, he says, are: Stage One: Play, Stage Two: Adventure, Stage Three: Frontier Adventure, Stage Four: Misadventure. He describes Play as being ‘concerned with minimal feelings and involvement’, the Adventure Stage as being ‘concerned with positive satisfying human feelings’ that progress with ‘intensity’ to the Frontier Stage where they make ‘life feel worth living’. Finally he refers to the Misadventure Stage as having ‘immediate negative and disruptive feelings’. I wouldn’t agree with all of his definitions here, especially when it comes to Play (he makes out almost as if Play is always boring, doesn’t involve risk and has very limited positive feedback outcomes), however, it is a useful way to begin to approach the topology of outdoor (or any) activity, through the lens of adventuring and to think about where someone’s comfort zone may be.

People tend to forget that play is serious.

David Hockney
– contemporary British painter

Taking a risk

Mortlock’s description of these stages of adventure can also be thought of as zones where the level of inherent risk increases as we get closer to the final stage of Misadventure, where there is too much risk and fear. At this stage, negative feelings of dissatisfaction and physical or psychological damage will probably occur if failure arises. This could result in a person’s comfort zone shrinking instead of expanding.

In ‘Categorizing risky play – How can we identify risk-taking in
children’s play?’ (E. B. H. S. 2007, European Early Childhood Education Research Journal, 15(2), 237-252), Ellen Beate Hansen Sandseter cites research which suggests that ‘overcoming fear’ is key to engaging with successful risky play. Once initial fears have been overcome, the learner is then able to reduce their new found ‘boredom’ in their play by adjusting their actions to meet a new fear as their level of skill develops in their activity: getting into/on to a swing, standing-up in a swing, jumping off a swing. The fear of getting hurt or getting lost are key fears. She further cites a five year old girl saying,

‘yes, it’s a little bit scary, but it’s great
fun – I often land on my bottom, and that hurts a bit – but it’s great fun anyway!’

It seems that children (learners) are happy to accept a level of pain and fear as this equates to having ‘fun’. We can begin to recognise that children/learners are able to grasp the concept of acceptable pain and fear before they get to the level of Misadventure. If we consider the Forest School setting, Sandseter creates some categories of risky play: Play With Great Heights (climbing trees), Play With High Speed (running, rolling down hills, playing fast team games), Play With Dangerous Tools (using axes and knives), Play near Dangerous Elements (campfires and water), Rough-And-Tumble Play (sword-fighting, play fighting and conflict simulation), Play Where the Children Can Disappear / Get Lost (hide-and-seek, independent walks in the woods). Misadventure, then, would be a sign of overconfidence or a lack of awareness.

A well designed Forest School programme should sequentially guide learners through understanding hazards and their associated risk, the learner’s own level of skill and confidence by gaining an honest appreciation of their actual-self (see https://wildpeople.org/forest-school-level-3-training/self-esteem-and-the-outdoors/), adoption of new skillsets and a suitably secure environment to exercise newly acquired confidences, abilities and motivations thereby moving someone out of one comfort zone – comfortably – into another without inappropriate risk-taking or misadventures.

Risk/Benefit Process

‘Children need the freedom and time to play. Play is not a luxury. Play is a necessity.’

Kay Redfield Jamison
– contemporary American professor of psychiatry

Risk-taking is an important part of a child’s (or any learner’s) development. Risk can be considered by some, however, to be unnecessary and unacceptable to the maintenance of a healthy child while ignoring any negative physical or psychological effects that the avoidance of risk may generate. Many may have an unrealistic appreciation of risk and how it should be applied to someone’s learning and development. The risk of something happening, falling off some equipment for example, can be mitigated by adding a soft-landing and ensuring adequate supervision. If our goal were to be the removal of all risk, we would ban all risky behaviour or hazardous equipment/activities and thereby remove the potential for benefits to be realised.

In Forest School programme we want to help guide our learners to have an ability to identify risk and an ability to navigate it. We acknowledge that a woodland setting has its hazards and its risks, in some cases potentially greater than a classroom or other educational/developmental setting. It is how we deal with this that matters.

When assessing the risk/benefit of our programme we have placed the learner at the centre of our assessments. This approach helps us to understand the risk/benefit of a particular activity or some other hazard. If the risk is high then there should be an appropriate amount or quality of benefit to justify the relatively high risk. Similar can be said of a low-level of risk: is there enough risk to create a benefit to the learner? There may an instance, however, where the considered risk is too high to justify a benefit and may, in fact, bring the level of benefit down – as in the situation of a Misadventure, as identified above. There may be occasions where specific hazards can be adapted to help manage the risk in order to create an acceptable risk-to-benefit ratio, in either direction.

This type of adaptation should be active and dynamic while ensuring appropriate records are kept and communications to necessary stakeholders are maintained. This way everyone who needs to know how to identify and navigate the risks to guide learners through new adventures can do so successfully.

Further reading: https://www.teachearlyyears.com/nursery-management/view/the-benefits-of-risky-play

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