As care givers, our role first and foremost is to keep our children safe. This involves identifying and anticipating hazards and assessing the risks they pose. Where possible, we remove these hazards or at least take steps to minimise the danger they pose. This is none more true than in the outdoor environment, particularly the Forest Garden where hazards are numerous. Formal Risk Assessments of the site and the activities on offer are robust and happen daily in exactly the same way as they do for the rest of the nursery.
However, Risk Assessing the outdoors is no small feat. In an ever-changing environment such as the Forest Garden, potential hazards are constantly arising be it from the elements, vegetation or wildlife. Consequently, we as care givers need to be especially vigilant. A combination of training, experience and knowledge of our children helps us to be dynamic in identifying potential hazards and timely in minimising their possible risks.
However, there are problems in creating environments for children that are wholly risk-free. So much of what we do as educators is centred around promoting children's independence, decision making skills and self confidence, not only as part of the Forest School programme, but as part of children's all round learning and development. Removing all element of risk not only makes this state of independence and autonomous decision making hard to achieve but it also derides children's efforts and achievements, which children all too keenly feel. The consequence of this is that children are likely to become disengaged and demotivated, a state of impasse in terms of learning and development and one to be avoided at all costs.
It's a tough balance to strike; imposing suitable limits and boundaries whilst giving children the freedom within those limits to learn and explore. We believe that a more dynamic risk-benefit assessment process is more beneficial than out right risk assessment, the distinction being that we observe and assess children and the environment for risk on a minute by minute basis and decide whether or not adult intervention is appropriate rather than blanket assessments made ahead of time. In addition to a more formative method of risk assessing, we also believe that by establishing positive relationships with our children, we can foster a culture of trust and respect. Far more powerful to include the children in the risk assessment process, discussing the dangers of nettles, brambles, fungi, berries, water, rocks, sticks, discussing what they look like, where they can be found, what to do if you find one than simply removing the dangers, which is next to impossible anyway. Indeed we discuss a great deal with our children the dangers that the elements and flora and fauna can pose as well as educating them on how to be safe around camp fires and when using tools. In this way, we give children the greatest possible protection; knowledge. Indeed our Forest Schoolers are so confident and competent at risk assessing that they remind each other and visitors. Learning from risk and learning about risk is important. Children assessing and judging risk for themselves is just as crucial to their learning as literacy and numeracy.
So, as uneasy as it may make us feel, risky play and exposing children to a certain level of risk is critical to their development. Even from birth, children are pushing the boundaries of their capabilities whether its lifting their head, rolling over or crawling and it is this drive to master skills beyond their physical means that helps children to progress and succeed. So really we are doing children a disservice to remove all risk.
An enormous part of a successful Forest School session is preparation. Good preparation can ensure children are comfortable and ready to explore and discover, and are not worried about getting dirty or being cold or wet. We ensure children are well prepared by insisting that they are suitably dressed in weather appropriate clothing. In Autumn/Winter, we provide children with fleece-lined waterproof dungarees to wear and children bring in their own waterproof coats, hats, gloves, scarves and welly boots. We recommend that children are sent to nursery wearing several base layers or bring some in a bag to nursery to ensure they are warm enough outside during the colder months. In Spring/Summer, children wear lighter waterproof jackets where necessary, waterproof trousers, welly boots and sunhats. Children are also asked to bring suncream to protect them against sun damage.