"Exploration (noun): the act of traveling to a place or searching a place in order to learn about it: (Cambridge Dictionary)
Our third value at Canopy Forest School is exploration. This value, like all the others, is important and entwined into all that we do. In every activity, we are always exploring consciously or unconsciously our beautiful and precious natural world. Be it the changes in the season, weather, plants, or animals. As we play and learn outdoors, we are finding out more about ourselves and who we are.
Within the six principles of Forest School which were agreed by the Forest School community in 2011 the fourth principle is that Forest School helps learners take supported risks (appendix1). Risk taking is central to our approach, methodology, ethos, mission, and values because Forest School believes that humans need adventure and challenge. Human beings are “hardwired” to take risks, from birth. Tim Gill is an independent scholar, writer and consultant on children's play and mobility writes in his paper “Nothing Ventured…. Balancing risks and benefits in the outdoors” that:
“Children and young people have a thirst for adventure and challenge. This is evident from their earliest efforts to crawl and walk and can be seen throughout childhood.” (Gill, 2010, p1)
Risk and exploration play an essential role in child development. Encountering certain types of risk helps children learn how to manage risks, builds resilience, self-reliance, confidence, independence, and creativity. The long-term benefits of risky encounters help to build character, personality and it is also argued that it is an essential part of living a meaningful and satisfying life.
Sadly, however in today’s world we have become an increasingly risk adverse society. This is making physically active, playful exploration and risk taking ever more difficult for children to practise. This shrinking horizon of childhood is documented in Tim Gill’s book No Fear-Growing up in a risk averse society (2007) where he powerfully demonstrates how opportunities for children are being constrained by measures intended to protect children have become counterproductive.
“Children in the past have been assumed to have capabilities that we now rarely think they have… So fixated are we on giving our children a long and happy childhood that we downplay their abilities and their resilience.” (Gill, 2007, p11)
There are many reasons behind how and why these anxieties about risk in childhood is growing: health and safety, legal and public policy, fear of being sued, technology, intensive parenting, media, and stranger danger to name just a few. Our attitudes towards risk taking and exploration have changed dramatically in the last century. Much has been written about what David Eager term “Risk Deficit Disorder” and the effect that this condition is having on the brain development of children today:
“A number of risk deficits now pervade our society. In particular there is a trend to remove risk from children’s play. The absence of childhood risk is leading to many problems both directly and indirectly. Problems such as obesity, mental health, lack of independence, and a decrease in learning, perception and judgement skills within our children have been cited in the literature. For the child, the exploration and taking of managed risk is critically important for healthy childhood development. Learning, perception and judgement will be impeded if the child is not exposed to situations that involve an element of risk.” (Abstract, Eager, 2011)
In 2017, David Derbyshire wrote an article for the Daily Mail which highlights the profound changes that have occurred in the last century around attitudes towards risk. How Children Lost the Right to Roam in Just Four Generations (Derbyshire, 2007) is an interview with four generations of the same family about how far they were allowed to wander as kids (appendix 2). In this article Derbyshire reports that:
“When George Thomas was eight, he walked everywhere.
It was 1926 and his parents were unable to afford the fare for a tram, let alone the cost of a bike and he regularly walked six miles to his favourite fishing haunt without adult supervision.
Fast forward to 2007 and Mr Thomas’s eight-year-old great-grandson Edward enjoys none of that freedom.
He is driven the few minutes to school, is taken by car to a safe place to ride his bike and can roam no more than 300 yards from home.” (2007)
This article really highlights how little freedom the children of today have:
“Two things are striking. First, that the recent child has no real experience of home range and outdoor activities. Second, clearly evident from the map, is that the greatest change in home range was not recent but was between the great grandfather and the grandfather: from 6 miles down to 1 mile, in about 1950.” (Woolley, H 2015, p4,)
This social change has been termed as Children’s Independent Mobility (CIM) and it is an area which has been explored by much research with Hillman et al (1990) leading in this area:
“The international comparison found that children’s independent mobility varies widely across the 16 countries studied. It is clear, however, that significant restrictions are placed on children’s independent mobility in nearly all the countries” (Hillman, 2015)
This is an issue that is faced by many countries today, but it is especially prevalent in English speaking nations. We are keeping our children close to home, and they are leading a very sedentary lifestyle which is filled with television, video games and computer screens. Across the world we are seeing far more childhood developmental issues including those around fine and gross motor control, balance, vestibular system difficulties, anxiety, and ADHD. Real concerns have been raised by multiple agencies including researchers, educators, and health practitioners about the implications of our attitudes towards risky play and the consequences of curbing these activities in childhood.
“Since play is the keyway in which young children learn the skills and abilities they need for life, we do them no favours by preventing them from pushing the boundaries of their physicality.” (Early Education, 2021, www.early-education.org.uk/taking-risks-play, accessed 11/7/21)
Angela Hanscom, a paediatric occupational therapist writes in her book Balanced and Barefoot: How Unrestricted Outdoor Play Makes for Strong, Confident, and Capable Children:
“Today's kids have adopted sedentary lifestyles filled with television, video games, and computer screens. But more and more, studies show that children need "rough and tumble" outdoor play in order to develop their sensory, motor, and executive functions. Disturbingly, a lack of movement has been shown to lead to a number of health and cognitive difficulties, such as attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), emotion regulation and sensory processing issues, and aggressiveness at school recess break.” (2016, p7)
Studies are showing repeatedly that children need “rough and tumble” outdoor play to develop their sensory, motor, and executive functions. In recent times it has become clear that children need to engage with their body, mind, and all their senses. As a result of recent research, a shift is beginning to take place and slowly good practice, especially in Early Years education, is beginning to recognise the real importance of risky play. Melanie Pilcher, the policy, and standards manager at the Pre-schools Learning Alliance writes and talks about the importance of finding and taking a more balanced approach which considers the benefits and human need to have elements of risk in our lives. In her article Risk and Reward, she writes:
“When creating and maintaining a safe environment, practitioners must pay heed to their legal duties, but should also take into account those risks which are acceptable too. The risk of falling off larger pieces of play equipment is quite high; however, the risk of harm is minimised by ensuring that there is adequate supervision, correct positioning of the equipment (away from windows, or walls) crash mats, and some ‘rules’ set by adults that are appropriate for the individual child’s level of understanding. In order to remove all risk the use of such equipment would be banned altogether, but the benefits of the activity happening, with the risk that some children will fall, includes children being able to expand their skills, as they risk climbing higher, reaching further, or balancing for longer. Children will also learn how to fall, how to pick themselves up and start over again. Equally importantly, they will begin to understand the consequence of taking risks beyond their current ability.” (Teach Nursery, nd, https://www.teachearlyyears.com/images/uploads/article/the-benefits-of-risky-play.pdf p90)
A more balanced approach is now sort after as it has been recognised how damaging miss-interpreted health and safety law has become. Unfortunately, when linked to the care and protection of students, the word ‘risk’ raises all sorts of concerns for so many headteachers and childcare providers. So often in educational settings activities are not allowed to take place or are deemed too dangerous because there is an element of risk. Practitioners often err too far on the side of caution as they do not understand that there is a huge difference between putting a child at risk and allowing a child to take risks. This misunderstanding of risk management led the Health and Safety Executive for England to make this statement:
“Health and safety laws and regulations are sometimes presented as a reason why certain play and leisure activities undertaken by children and young people should be discouraged. Such decisions are often based on misunderstandings about what the law requires. The HSE has worked with the Play Safety Forum to produce a joint high-level statement that gives clear messages tackling these misunderstandings. HSE fully endorses the principles in this Statement.
This statement makes clear that:
· Play is important for children's well-being and development
· When planning and providing play opportunities, the goal is not to eliminate risk, but to weigh up the risks and benefits
· Those providing play opportunities should focus on controlling the real risks, while securing or increasing the benefits – not on the paperwork
· Accidents and mistakes happen during play – but fear of litigation and prosecution has been blown out of proportion”
(HSE, Childs Play Statement, https://www.hse.gov.uk/entertainment/childs-play-statement.htm, accessed 12/7/21)
A similar statement was also released by Tom Mullarkey the Chief Executive of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents. He writes:
“Developing confidence and risk judgement among young people is crucial if we are to structure a society that is not risk averse. We need to accept that uncertainty is inherent in adventure, and this contains the possibility of adverse outcomes. A young person’s development should not be unduly stifled by the proper need to consider the worst consequence of risk but must be balanced by its likelihood and indeed its benefits. Counter-intuitively, the key to challenging risk aversion among leaders and decision makers, is the application of balanced risk assessment. It is only by objective analysis that the benefits and opportunities of an activity can be weighed against their potential to go wrong. Indeed, I feel that the terminology should be changed to ‘risk/benefit assessment’. For the most part, as previous generations have learnt by experience, it is rare indeed that a well-planned exercise leads to accident.” (Gill, 2010, Forward)
Consequently, risky play is vital to our human development and as Tim Gill writes:
“A mindset that is solely focused on safety does children and young people no favours. Far from keeping them safe from harm, it can deny them the very experiences that help them to learn how to handle the challenges that life may throw at them. There is emerging consensus that our society has become too focused on reducing or eliminating risk, in childhood. And research suggests that overprotecting children can lead to long-term problems with mental health and well-being” (Gill, 2010, p1)
The Forest Programme embraces risky play, and the skills we teach create a foundation for appropriate risk taking and exploration.
Forest School teaching uses sensible and balanced health and safety procedures. Practitioners take a reasonable and proportionate approach to safety which accepts a degree of risk. Forest School leaders take their responsibility for the safety of the students seriously and take heed of all their legal duties, risk is effectively managed and is seen as not only inevitable but positively desirable. Benefit and risk assessments are made for all activities and an in-depth knowledge of the process of learning these skills is always used and applied.
Within the structure of health and safety, Forest School practitioners know that risk-taking is an especially important part of a child’s development. Preparing and supporting them to take risks and teaching how to adopt common sense and an appropriate approach that balances benefits and risks is a fundamental part of the programme. Our understanding of risk taking in Forest School does not just apply to physical risks but also social and emotional ones as well. Our aim in the programme is to support, facilitate and provide opportunities and because it is a child-led curriculum we allow the students to guide us, and we watch and observe them as they explore and play.
Play requires an element of risk it is our inbuilt teacher that allows us to experiment, make decisions, overcome obstacles, and interact with others. It is through play that we strengthen our independent thinking skills, and it is a device that all young animals use to learn about the world around them. If you watch any young animal, you will quickly realise how important play is to their survival, it is our innate education system that is more attuned to what we need than any National Curriculum. Forest School views play as a process not a product, it is dynamic, imaginative and belongs to children and young people. It is their way of daring to learn something new. It is play that makes a baby step away from a secure base, take their first steps and move from their trusted adult. It is in this way that we enable, facilitate, and provide risky or challenging play to Forest School participants. Leaders learn to wait, watch, and know when to step in and when to step back. Slowly at the child’s directed pace more challenging opportunities are available. Consequently, at Forest School we carefully and skilfully allow the students to show us what skills they want and need to develop, and this is achieved through observations and reflective learning
Tool use and crafting is an important element of Forest School sessions but as stated above these skills are slowly introduced by tuning into the age, stage, and challenge levels of the students. A great way of introducing tools is by demonstration and the practitioner can model making their own artefact which can become a springboard without “direct teaching”. In this way they see the purpose of the activity and are guided by intrigue, fascination and questions which then lead the activity onwards (Cree and Robb, 2021, p303). There are three main skill elements in the Forest School programme: tools, fire, and shelter building.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines craft as Cree and Robb point out as using “…the hands to make something using skill and dexterity” (2021, p295,). Crafting an object from the natural world around us is an immensely powerful human experience.
“crafting an object from plant, animal or mineral, crafting a fire, or crafting a meal outside to be cooked on a fire, is something very human and can really be done in a playful way” (Cree and Robb, 2021, p295,)
This experience is something that is being lost in today’s world. There is a lot of research showing that the loss of craft has had an impact on our learning and development particularly in physical dexterity, language development, concentration, and perseverance. Handcraft has always been an essential part of our human experience and a reason behind why humans have been so successful. It has enabled us to “craft civilisation and culture and importantly feel part of rather than separate from the natural world.” (Cree and Robb, 2021, p296). Simple acts like harvesting willow, whittling a stick into a magic wand, collecting wood, and arranging it to make a fire and then cooking and eating outside are magical human experiences. These experiences are also beneficial to our whole selves as Cee and Robb point out:
“In particular over the years that they instil a huge degree of resilience supporting a growth mindset, a craft takes practice…..you have to put the work in. Craft is hard work, but the reward is huge in terms of the returning connection to both the creative self and the “other”. Creative connection is often subconscious, but craft provides the foundations of often hard practise and experimentation which then guides the creative process” (2021, p297)
Forest School as Cree and Robb assert is far more than an emphasis on hand tools-using hand tools is one part of the holistic approach. The most useful tools in Forest School are loppers, a fixed blade knife, baton, or mallet, pruning saw, bow saw, hammer, hand drills and pegs. The use of tools very much depends upon the task, materials, and abilities. Using rope and learning knots are also useful especially for shelter building. Sarah Blackwell describes the process of introducing tools and says that:
“Tools are used in a traditional woodland manner and are introduced gradually after the baseline assessment process. By then the practitioner will have an informed idea of the ability of each child to listen and to adhere to the fundamental health and safety requirements made of them, to keep themselves and others out of harms way. The Practitioner will be qualified to use tools, with a certificate of achievement from the awarding body; to show that whilst training the leader fine tuned their own use of tools to become unconsciously competent. Therefore we can be confident that when the tools are introduced to the child, the process of teaching will be safe, consistent and easily managed by the leader. If tools are introduced before the Baseline Assessment process carried out with the children, the practitioner has little understanding of the child’s self awareness and ability to control body movement, emotions and understanding of spatial aspects, relating to the tools themselves and other people. Once we understand the levels of maturity, and physical levels of the children, then we can put in place the required control measures to allow freedom of use, build confidence and avoid accidents or incidents, all within the boundaries that have been set. (Blackwell, p220.127.116.11.)
Using tools and working a woodland area is also a very sensory experience which usually calls for cooperative teamwork and therefore its benefits go beyond the physical, it is an emotional and social experience too (appendix 3). There is a lot of research that has been conducted recently that shows how working with hand tools can also help to develop empathy and phonics. As Cree and Robb point out:
“We know that praxis-the ability to plan and execute motor actions or behaviour-relies on movement. The part of the brain that activates handwriting and helps with recognising shapes and patterns and therefore language-phonics-can be stimulated by the use of handtools. We have traced in our ancestry that the use of handtools is directly linked to the parts of the brain that saw development of written as well as verbal language (Wynn and Coolidge, 2010). Moreover, we know that mimicking movement, such as learning how to use a saw from watching and participating with a skilled educator, can stimulate the mirror neurons which, when firing with the rest of the brain, can help to develop empathy.” (Cree and Robb, 2021, p301)
Another important element of Forest School is fire and in many ways it is the “heart and reference point of the setting…..it is the ingredient that pulls this learning community together”(Cree and Robb, 2021, p320). Gathering around a fire has an amazing calming effect and at the end of a session is an ideal point to reflect on all the learning and next steps for future learning. There are many other reasons for including fire in outdoor practice as Cree and Robb point out:
“This is a fine way of developing fine motor skills from the collection, sorting and arranging of small kindling to the action of using a firesteel, flint and steel, matches or, if you are really advanced, fire drills” (202, p321)
All the skills discussed above lay the foundations for appropriate risk taking and there are of course other skills not discussed in full such as den building and tree climbing. With each skill comes lessons in resilience, self-control, self-awareness, teamwork, confidence, and creativity.
“The Archimedes Forest Schools Model supports skilled practitioners to understand the function of the tools and fire, as a conduit or vehicle to the bigger goal and vision for each child. It trains its practitioners to apply a specific methodology of tools talks and tools use. This has been based on research of observing and collating best practice from experts, and adapted by Archimedes to reduce the likelihood of harm occurring, both to trainee practitioners as well as to children, to support positive relationships, to foster respect for the equipment and the inherent risks involved and to encourage success and therefore confidence to persevere.” (Blackwell, p4:2)
These foundations are carefully and skilfully introduced and behind the scenes balanced benefit and risk assessments have been produced by the practitioner.
Assessing the benefits and risks of activities, the grounds and weather conditions are all a big part of the preparation stage for any Forest School leader before a programme commences. Part of the training involved in achieving the Level 3 Forest School Leader qualification involves a deep understanding of risk management as Sarah Blackwell explains:
“Archimedes Earth offers high levels of industry focused experience, infrastructure, expertise and resources to offer to trainees so that the development of appropriate riskmanagement skills is well understood and appropriate for the group and for the environment. This is present through the provision of programmes as well as through the training. Risk-benefit analysis is undertaken before programmes commence. Risks are primarily associated with the group or individual learners, the woodland environment, the normal operating procedures including, but not exhaustively, the weather and seasonal impact, fires, tools, activities and transport. It is essential though that it is not simply the risks that are focused upon, as in this world of fear and containment, the role of the Forest Schools Practitioner is of facilitator and enabler ensuring that the balance between the aspect of risk, i.e. the likelihood of a harm occurring to people, environment or ‘things’ is accurately balanced with the severity of any harm that may occur as a result of an encounter. This in turn is assessed against the benefits of participating in a particular process, with a particular group of people, doing particular things, and with what. So the benefits can be analysed for a particular individual, a group or environment as a whole, and whether these benefits will outweigh the sum of the severity of the risks involved.” (Blackwell, p4.3)
At Canopy Forest School we have thought carefully and made balanced judgements about all the risk-benefit assessments that we have produced (appendix 4). In our risk-benefit assessments, safety is of upmost concern, and we take our responsibilities and duties of care seriously. However, it is not a restricting factor as we understand that all risks can be managed (Sarah Blackwell, p4.3).
Making judgements and writing a well-balanced assessment is complicated because it involves many factors:
“They involve many factors, and are often partly subjective. For example, children may be unpredictable in their play, and have widely varying interests and competences; different providers may have different aims, goals and values, which may be expressed in widely varying approaches; and the 3 contexts of a site, and the level and style of supervision, are important local factors. Guidance such as play equipment standards help to set reference points, but do not provide an absolute answer, nor do they take into account local circumstances” (Blackwell p4.3)
Thoughtful and well-constructed risk-benefit assessments help the Forest School Leader to analyse and carefully think through the details of activities, the weather, the season, the setting, and the students. Thus, sessions can be delivered confidently. Acting upon the details in these assessments is of course essential and it is important that they do not become just a paperwork activity but are useful working documents.
“A well-conducted risk-benefit assessment is the one that is properly acted upon and it will provide a sound and reasonable defence against liability claims and prosecution relating to any harm. Safety is evaluated with respect to many components at Forest Schools” (Blackwell, p4.3)
All Archimedes Forest School practitioners are required to have a full outdoor first aid training certificate and at Canopy Forest School we fulfil this requirement. First aid kits that are stocked appropriately for the number of clients attending each session and the activities to be undertaken are brought to each session as well as a “Happy Sack”. The appropriate contact forms and child information are also brought to the site and are always stored safely. All participants are required to fill out consent, contact and medical forms before they attend the sessions. We therefore ensure that we fulfil the First aid requirements under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974. Sarah Blackwell writes in the Archimedes Forest School Handbook that:
“Archimedes advocates that all practitioners have full first aid training that is applicable to the client group and the environment that they are working with and in. First aid kits appropriate for the number of attendees, and for the type of undertaking that may be engaged in, including a ‘happy sack.’ Is recommended. These resources include all the supporting safety and wellbeing equipment that a qualified practitioner could need to satisfy any incident or accident or procedure that inclement weather or the age of your group may throw up. Archimedes Earth has spent many years working with professional provider Andy Forsyth from ITC (Immediate Temporary Care) and have developed the first Forest Schools First Aid qualification for practitioners that meets the needs of the industry, this has been developed to support appropriate provision as opposed to offering First Aid that is not necessarily appropriate. For example, the First Aid at Work (FAW), which is designed for employees within a work place and does not cover work with children. The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 states that employers are required to provide training to employees that meets the needs of their job. It is the responsibility of the Practitioner to ensure that they meet the requirements of the law.” (Blackwell, p4.3.2.)
Safety procedures and emergency action plans will always be on hand and available, and it is a requirement that these be available and recorded in the policies and procedure handbooks for the forest school. At Canopy Forest School our handbook which contains all these procedures are available on our website for everyone to view and read https://www.canopy-forest-school.com/handbook. We recommend that parents look at this before signing up for sessions and all staff are required to read and sign to say that they understand and agree with all our policies and procedures.
“Forest Schools practitioners carry out the daily dynamic site risk assessments and ensure the group safety; they are up to date on the newest weather forecast. The group is either asked about relevant issues relating to safety, so they can recount aspects to remember and offer advice, support to each other or briefed about safety aspects. It is ensured that all accompanying adults are aware of essential processes that the leader will employ whilst working with the children at the site, as well as how to manage the group should emergency cover be required. An example of this may be the need to access emergency services, and how they may access the evacuation point. These will be contained in the Policies, procedures, Risk Assessments and the Communication documentation given to support assistants, other leaders or parents. Depending on the maturity level, these will be taught to the children also.” (Blackwell, p18.104.22.168.)
When using tools, we again abide by the Health and Safety at Work 1974 Act and teach the safe use of equipment. We teach this in a balanced and safe way which reduces the likelihood of injury and have the appropriate number of staff to watch and supervise this work. We always use Tool Talks (appendix 5) which is a requirement of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 and at Canopy Forest School we use the PASS system (appendix 6) which ensures correct usage and builds up an awareness of how to keep ourselves and others safe. We also use the stages in competence development in tool use as put forward by Noel Burch, an employee with Gordon Training International (appendix 7) and refer to the Archimedes Zone of Risk model (appendix 8). We ensure that all tools are stored correctly and that they are well managed and maintained. The correct PPE is also always worn and provided for participants (appendix 9). As Sarah Blackwell writes:
“Irrespective of the ages of the learners, it is the responsibility of the leader (employer) in the eyes of the Health and Safety at Work 1974 Act to teach safe use. Tools need to be managed in such a way that it will reduce the likelihood of injury, maintained appropriately and that others in the group (employees) are taught the correct manner by which they have to use it when working. It is a legal duty to do so and until the individuals within the group can demonstrate personal competency, it is the leader’s responsibility with regards to guidelines and safety processes. Tools Talks are a requirement of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, where the equipment use, its correct usage and how to keep self and others safe are explained. All tools will be well managed and well maintained, as this will ensure that they are suitable and effective to carry out the task.” (Blackwell, p3.3.2.)
Regarding our Fire Safety procedures Canopy Forest School uses the recommended guidelines for the fire circle construction (appendix 10). This process includes site assessments looking at trip hazards and safety procedures around the fire (appendix 11).
“There are requirements for construction of the site. Procedures are developed in order to maintain the safety of the group members against fire hazards and whilst the purpose of the training is to provide guidelines for competency of the leaders to be assessed. This allows those employers and parents to know that the practitioner is capable and accommodating when aspects of their personal responsibility are required.” (Blackwell, p3.3.4)
These tools and skills will not be introduced to a client group until the evaluation and baseline assessment period has been completed which takes place in the first few weeks of the programme. After the six-week baseline assessment period a holistic picture will be formed of all the participants. This allows the Forest School Leader to have formed a good understanding about the fascinations, motivations, physical, social, and emotional aspects of each participant.
“This is carried out not only to assess personal awareness and regulation of emotions and movements, appreciation of others and the environment and an understanding of what is involved, but also with respect to the potential benefit to the learners in their experience. It is common that tools are not used until it is the learners themselves who want them to be included, because they are working in a specific task or process that requires a tool to complete it. If the practitioner decides to use fire and/or tools it is the regulations of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, that will ultimately govern their introduction, training, use and maintenance.” (Blackwell, p4.2)
Risk assessments are thoroughly and compressively conducted at Canopy Forest School, and they have been designed to strike a balance between risks and benefits. Safety is taken seriously, and children play and work within their comfort zones however when it is deemed appropriate and when the children guide us more challenge is introduced to extend and broaden the participants. We follow all the guidelines of the Archimedes Forest School approach and are respectful of appropriate measures and understand why these are needed but at the same time we do not allow our risk assessments to unbalance the necessary exposure to physical, social and personal challenge. As Sarah Blackwell writes:
“Forest School education offers freedom and opportunity to play and accept challenge through managed risks. Children’s rights to play, in line with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child 1989, and adopted into the UK in 1991, is whilst ‘striking a balance between risks and benefits of challenging play opportunities’ advocated by the Play Safety Forum, formed in 1993 and in a Health and Safety Executive statement ‘Children’s Play and Leisure, - Promoting a Balanced Approach 2012. Safety is taken seriously and thoughtful consideration is given to its management through structural foundations. This can ensure that children are able to work within their comfort zones when new to the experience, extend their participation, levels of challenge and anticipation of risk, harm and challenge, leading to increased understanding of self, their physical strength, their mental capacity to overcome and ultimately to use problem solving skills to make important decisions regarding appropriate participation for the simple need for self preservation, in order to maintain Personal Sustainability.” (Blackwell, p4.1)
Appropriate risk taking is set deep within Forest School pedagogy consequently the many positive personal outcomes that have been recorded by a large range of practitioners, researchers, and educationalists are a result of embracing this philosophy. Offering experiences and opportunities for risk taking is part of the bedrock of the Forest School programme because of the benefits that are known to come from it. Risk taking also appears in other forms for example the third principle which is:
“Forest School uses a range of learner-centred processes to create a community for being, development and learning.” (https://forestschoolassociation.org/what-is-forest-school/accessed , 14/7/21)
As the learner centred process allows the dynamics of play to help form the community, the student development and learning takes place. Play as discussed previously is the child’s inbuilt teacher that allows them to experiment, make decisions, overcome obstacles, and interact with others.
Developing “capable learners” who can be active, reflective, and self-directed participants in their own learning is the aim of the programme (appendix 12) and this then radiate out into other areas of their lives (appendix 13). However, “capable learners” only come about if trust, confidence, resilience, creativity, self-esteem, self-worth, and independence are nurtured. This is achieved slowly and carefully through play, risk, observations, and reflections on the part of the leader and participant. The six-week baseline assessment is where this all begins:
“the Archimedes Forest Schools Model illustrates how the child and the practitioner come together at the beginning of the programme. How they interrelate over the course of the baseline assessment phase – the 6 initial weeks of interaction. This then informs the leader of the overall programme aims for that child in attending the Forest Schools programme. This extended developmental phase of the programme occurs in nature, ideally woodlands, through all the seasons, using the ‘Plan, Do, Reflect and Preview’ cycle.” (Blackwell, p1:2)
The evaluation of each participant’s holistic development is the linchpin in helping the student to become a capable learner as Blackwell writes:
“It is this transference that is consistently developing the ability for the child to become a ‘Capable Learner’. The Capable Learner increases their own capacity for ‘Personal Sustainability’ The Archimedes Forest Schools Model focuses on this as its main aim – Inspiration, Aspiration, Transformation” (Blackwell, p1:2) The outcomes of Forest School in contrast to other outdoor exposures is that:
“Forest Schools Education provides a very comprehensive and broad-base experience for overall development. Some very positive developments observed in children attending Forest Schools are: self-esteem, (to include increase in levels of self worth, a rethinking of actual self and ideal self, a more realistic self image) self-confidence, new skills, ability to make independent decisions, ability to take care of self, communication abilities and social linkages. Among these developments in children, the most distinguishable aptitudes are in relation to the nature and environment, the environmental identity and the longer-term respect towards it. Such an experience is very distinct and highly advantageous from the point of view that these children are learning the foundation of sustainable development.” (Blackwell, p1:4)
Cultivating trust in a group community is vital. Much of what inspirers students to invest the effort required for learning, playing, and taking risks is their trust in the adults and peers around them. Megan Tschannen-Moran discusses this in her book “Trust-Matters” (2014,) and she asserts that:
“When teachers and students trust each other and work together corporately, learning follows from the climate of safety and warmth that prevails. When distrust and competition triumph, however, students and teachers alike are motivated to minimize their vulnerability by adopting a self-protective stance. Disengagement from the educational process results in unfortunate consequences, as safety comes at the expense of students’ investment in the learning project” (2014, p153)
Building trust involves trusting others. As Forest School leaders we need to trust in the capabilities of our students and believe in them wholeheartedly. The trust that the practitioner extends to students is key to the relationship that connects students to each other and to the Forest School itself. This links to the work of Scot Peck who writes about the stages of community-making. In his book “The different drum” (1990) he outlines the rules and process of disarming ourselves, healing past wounds to bridge differences, relate, honour, acknowledge and take responsibility for our actions. Peck states that there are four stages of community building: pseudocommunity, chaos, emptiness, and community (appendix 14).Leaders who trust in their students, show them they care, make them feel secure and respond sensitively to their needs accomplish more as a team.
“In nature, children learn to take risks, overcome fears, make new friends, regulate emotions, and create imaginary worlds. It’s important that adults allow children both the time and the space to play outdoors on a daily basis. It’s important that we give them the trust they deserve and the freedom they need to try out new theories and play schemes.” (Hanscom, 2016, p3)
In conclusion, risk, adventure, and exploration is part of the human experience and when I look back over the opportunities and experiences that I have had over the course of my life it is the moments where I have taken a risk that I have truly learnt and developed. Moments in my life where I grew to name just a few were; going off to university, taking my first teaching job, travelling around the world, and teaching abroad. All these adventures and moments of risk taking have made me who I am today. They have given me confidence, self-esteem, resilience, and self-worth. However, risk taking does not have to be big eventful moments in life it can be making a social risk and going out to meet friends or starting a new job. Risk involves becoming vulnerable and open to new learning and the long-term benefits of allowing ourselves to step outside of our comfort zones are huge. Forest school is a unique learning process which balances benefits-risks and has trust and confidence in the abilities of students.
“The ethos of Forest Schools Education and learning is not solely based on the adult view of risk. Instead, it is based on children’s innate abilities, which are allowed to grow by developing new skills and confidence.” (Blackwell, p22.214.171.124.)
Appendix 1: Guiding principles of Forest School, Forest School Association (2021)
Appendix 2: How Children Lost the Right to Roam in Just Four Generations Derbyshire, 2007)
Appendix 3: Hand tools and holistic development, Cree and Robb (2021), p301
Appendix 4: Risk/benefit assessments, Canopy Forest School, (2021) Handbook,
Appendix 5: Tool Talks
Appendix 6: Canopy PASS TOOL SYSTEM
Appendix 7: Stages of competence in tool use, Blackwell, p3.3.1
Appendix 8: Zones of risk
Appendix 9: Personal Protective Equipment, (2021) Handbook, Canopy Forest School
Appendix 10: Fire circle, (2021), Handbook, Canopy Forest School
Appendix 11: Fire risk assessment and policy, (2021), Handbook, Canopy Forest School