Risk: A Forest School Perspective

Guest blog by Sara Knight

Why are opportunities for risk and adventure essential for normal development in the early years?  Tim Gill (2007) identifies four arguments:

  1. helping children to learn how to manage risk (understanding safety)
  2. feeding children’s innate need for risk with reasonable risks in order to prevent them finding greater unmanaged risks for themselves
  3. health and developmental benefits
  4. the building of character and personality traits such as resilience and self-reliance

It is important that you help the children in your care to develop their understanding of safety.  In part, it is about self-awareness.  “Where do I start and finish”, “what can my body do”, “how do I control my actions” are questions that we see tiny babies wrestling with as they grasp at toys and develop their mobility.  This is an ongoing process, and young children are pre-programmed to keep stretching themselves, in the same way that all young animals do, until they reach maturity and the peak of their own particular abilities.  They need opportunities to challenge themselves.  The role of the adult, animal or human, is to enable the stretching process to be safe enough, to help them to take reasonable risks.  The risks will vary according to the child’s understanding and ability.  For a new walker, an uneven surface will be a reasonable risk.  For a new climber, a log on the ground will be sufficient to balance on.  Competent walkers will appreciate dramatic differences in levels, competent climbers more adventurous trees to climb.  Not to give them these early experiences may be to deny them the opportunity to reach their potential.  It is shocking to think that many new walkers will only experience concrete or carpet beneath their feet, and will not learn to deal with uneven ground or sand until they are older.  This means that when they go to the beach or run through snow or leaves, their sense of their own capacity may incline them towards undue risk-taking or undue caution.  Either way, it affects the rate at which they gain physical competence or intellectual understanding of risk and consequence.

Another outcome from such opportunities is to engage children at a sensory and intellectual level with their environment.  In a world where climate change will be a problematic issue within their lifetime, it is important for children to connect with their environment at every level, and as often as possible.  Early years practitioners are uniquely placed to mediate the pressures from family, culture and community and to give every child the opportunity to stretch themselves and maximise their potential.  This is not to put yourself in conflict with parents, but to help them to realise, for example, that having the opportunity to go out in the rain helps children to understand more completely the world around them.  Having your own understanding that getting wet will not give you a cold will help.

Even very young children can enter into a discussion about their environment.  When I take 3 year olds into woods for Forest School sessions we talk about their feelings.  For some, a wood is scary, dark and unknown, and I want them to benefit emotionally, intellectually and physically.  A child can’t do that if s/he is scared or if s/he is unaware of danger.  Bravery is not about rushing in blindly, it is about knowing the risks and doing the best you can.  So we talk about nettles, brambles and holes in the ground, things that are a part of that environment that they will need to learn to manage.  We do not remove them.

The challenge for practitioners is to review their outdoor space and to think about ways to increase risks, rather than minimise them.  A concrete square has few visible risks, and yet children fall or push each other over and accidents happen.  It may be that some of the “accidents” are the result of the limitations of the space, a direct correlation with the sterile safety being offered to the children.  Perhaps if they had the challenge of a pile of logs to scramble over, the risks would be focused, could be discussed and managed, and learning could take place.  If children have exciting reasonable risks to undertake they will be less likely to find unreasonable ones for themselves.  A pile of logs is an appropriate mountain for younger children to climb.

Settings may have a flat piece of grass which has few visible risks, but children run into each other, trip over balls, and accidents happen.  Perhaps if a great big scoop were dug out of the middle of the grass patch to make a hollow to roll into, or fill with water and make mud pies in, the risks would be focused, etc., and learning could take place.  Think of the proto-science, mathematics and physics that occur in such a space.  It is not tidy, clean or micromanaged, but it is fertile ground for tomorrow’s creative entrepreneurs.  Getting dirty is a wonderful learning experience that we should all have.

Settings with no outdoor space have to rely on outings, which offer opportunities for different risks.  If children make their own sandwich, they are learning to take care of themselves.  The risk is in the choice of fillings, and the likelihood that it will fall apart.  If they have the responsibility for carrying a rucksack for their spare jumper or water bottle, they are becoming more independent.  The risk is in losing or forgetting the rucksack.  Then there all the other risks involved in going out, too numerous to explore here.

For many young children it is their settings which provide them with the only adventurous outdoor activities they will experience.  It is our outdoor activities that will provide our children with the good habits of healthy exercise.  We owe our children the right to develop their defences against obesity, heart disease and diabetes. Even our youngest children can start building these skills and aptitudes, and that we owe it to them to provide these opportunities.

Sara Knight trained as a Forest School practitioner in 1996, then as a trainer, and then wrote the first training courses for the East of England. She worked at Anglia Ruskin University’s Faculty of Education from 2007 until her retirement in 2015. She has written extensively on Forest School in the UK and other aspects of early years care and education.

Further Reading

Harding, N. (2021) Growing a Forest School from the Roots UpCumbria: Forest School Association

Knight, S. (2011) Risk and Adventure in Early Years Outdoor Play: lessons from Forest School. London: Sage

See also:

Taking risks in play as part of our Outdoors and Active project resources

Taking risks in our Exploring the Wider World project resources