Forest School risk benefit assessment – why is risk important?
Firstly, before explaining why a Forest School risk benefit assessment is important I think it’s important for you to remember that it was only a few decades ago that children could roam freely, without the glare of adults. I can recall a sense of freedom and expansion from my childhood adventures that still influences me today, and remember disappearing to 1970’s playgrounds, negotiating ‘dangerous’ equipment and strangers, spinning like crazy on the ‘witches’ hat’, making sure I didn’t rip my clothes on the loose railings. I was 7 or 8 years old. All the conversations and freedom tested my sense of self and my growing sense of independence.
I believe that adults underestimate a child’s ability to manage risk. Children do make mistakes and those mistakes can turn into accidents. However, minor injuries or accidents – from which children make a full recovery are not in themselves a problem. Children learn from them. It is only natural to fear the unknown but as an outdoor practitioner I have learnt to confront my own fears of risk. I sometimes have to stop myself to do my own dynamic forest school risk benefit assessment. What if? Is a great question. What if she climbs up too high, or gets totally soaking wet? What if he and his friends carry a huge log around? I have to take a moment, take a deep breath and figure out if the benefits outweigh the risks, and how likely they may happen, and if they do happen, what’s the worst that could happen!
Safety and risk are both critical for healthy development. The capacity to feel emotionally safe, to bounce back from negative experiences builds a greater internal ‘risk’ bandwidth that promotes curiosity, thinking outside the box, experimenting and creativity.
The truth is, children are naturally curious, they have an appetite for experience and an urge to explore and understand. They want to push themselves and create a capable and brave self image. When risks are removed from play and restrictions are too high, a child is more likely to suffer problems such as obesity, mental health concerns, lack of independence, a decrease in learning, perception and judgement skills (Eager and Little, 2011). When we restrict children’s risky play, as they get older, they fear taking risks, which impacts having enough self-trust to become increasingly independent.
“The more risks you allow children to take, the better they learn to take care of themselves” Roald Dahl, My Year.
The Balanced Approach
Managing risk in play and learning environments is a complex task. It is different to risk management in other contexts like factories. In these contexts, risks rarely have any inherent benefits. So, in other industries or contexts risk management focuses on control measures which eliminate or mitigate the risk of harm to an acceptable level. But in play or learning contexts, exposure to some risks is often a benefit.
Take for example, those 1970s playgrounds that I visited as a child. Those playgrounds were full of hazardous things that in a different context would have been deemed dangerous and removed. For example, the spinning witch. However, the spinning witch has inherent benefits, even if it leads to more accidents. It challenges children and makes play more engaging and enriching. They test a child’s courage and determination. They build a greater tolerance to risk.
Therefore, it’s clear that at the heart of managing risk is a balancing act between opportunities for learning and play, and safety – or put it another way, between risks and benefits.
What does a balanced approach to forest school risk benefit assessment look like?
A balanced approach brings together risks and benefits in a single process. The development of risk benefit assessments is key to this. The Health and Safety Executive (2012) recognises the benefits of outdoor play:
“Play is great for children’s wellbeing and development. When planning and providing play opportunities; the goal is not to eliminate risk, but to weigh up the risks and benefits. No child will learn about risk if they are wrapped up in cotton wool.” (Play England 2008)
A forest school risk benefit assessment sets out in a single statement the considerations of risk and benefit that make up a decision to provide, modify or remove a facility, activity or feature. The role of a nature practitioner and staff is to work out the main physical and environmental risks and take steps to reduce them if absolutely necessary. You need to balance the risks against the benefits and make children the main focus of the risk benefit process.
Care Inspectorate in Scotland (2016) (10) recommend:
- Consider children’s potential to learn and benefit by taking risks. As children and young people develop, they need to try new things and learn new skills. They need to work out risks for themselves as part of their learning process.
- Involve children in the risk-benefit assessment process so they can develop their knowledge and self-awareness and contribute more of their ideas and learning. By including children in the risk-assessment process, you can empower them to make safe decisions.
‘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 2008)
Due to the fact this assessment includes careful consideration of benefits, it allows for the inherent benefits or some risks to be properly taken into account. It emphasises the point that good risk management does not always mean that risks should be reduced.
What should you do?
You should consider adopting a risk benefit approach. This will be particularly valuable if you are thinking about providing more adventurous, challenging play and learning opportunities in outdoor contexts.
Improving play and learning opportunities for children and young people of all ages and abilities should be a key objective for teachers and practitioners. This means exposing children to a degree of managed risk. The challenge is to do this without putting them in undue danger of serious harm. Risk benefit assessments can help you overcome this challenge by taking a balanced approach which weighs up the pros and cons of each activity. By doing so, it will allow us to provide our children with more engaging and enjoyable experiences which I’m sure we all remember from our own childhoods.
If you work in education, find out how we can help you improve your outdoor learning provision