Risky Play

“We need to let children move in ways that make adults gasp.”

Angela Hanscom

There is no discussion about Forest School that doesn’t include the concept of ‘risky play’. So, what is it? Risky play was a term developed by Norwegian researcher, Ellen Sandseter and includes six specific types.

  1. Play at great heights: climbing trees, climbing on top of tables, (climbing on a pile of hay bales), or anything else where the risk is that the child falls and gets hurt.
  2. Play at great speeds: running really fast like the wind, riding downhill on a bike. The risk is falling down or hitting something.
  3. Play with dangerous tools: chopping vegetables for dinner, hammering nails and using sharp scissors. Many tools can be used if taught how to use them properly.
  4. Play near dangerous elements: Playing near bodies of water, on steep terrain, near a campfire, on a farm near horses, or on icy slopes.
  5. Play that involves “getting lost”: Hide and seek, (hiding in large hollow stumps), hiding behind bushes or going off into the woods on a hike. (Harper 2017)
  6. Rough and Tumble Play: vigorous physical play such as chasing and play fighting but involves positive feelings between the players.

Educators, parents and caregivers may indeed gasp at what these types of play suggest, however in our risk averse society it is crucial that we pause a moment and look at what the research suggests in terms of the benefits risky play has on children’s physical and social health and development.

Here in Canada, Dr. Mariana Brussoni is a developmental psychologist who works as Investigator at the BC Children’s Hospital, an Academic Scientist at the BC Injury Research & Prevention Unit as well as an Associate Professor in the Department of Pediatrics in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of British Columbia, and conducts research on the topic of risky outdoor play. She and her colleagues advocate for this type of play as being not only good for children’s health but also their creativity, social skills and resilience. Some of the research she’s been involved in has been published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health and found that “children who participated in physical activity such as climbing and jumping, rough and tumble play and exploring alone, displayed greater physical and social health.” (retrieved from: https://www.bcchr.ca/mbrussoni)

Just as no conversation about Forest and Nature School ensues without referencing affordances for risk in outdoor nature play, the same can be said for the discussion of how we assess risk and weigh it against the benefits. FNS practitioners are trained and vigilant in conducting risk/benefit assessments. The Forest and Nature School Risk/Benefit Assessment Framework includes assessing for hazards and risks when selecting a site in which to hold Forest School sessions (Site Risk Assessment), the risk at the site prior to each session (Dynamic Risk Assessment) because the same site that was safe and deemed as a low risk site on one day, for example, could be flooded out after a severe storm the next day), and assessing the benefits and risks of individual activities children are engaged in (Experience Risk Assessment). In addition to engaging in the assessment process themselves, FNS Practioners teach children about risk and how they can learn to assess it themselves depending on the activity they are engaged in and where they are at developmentally. Through this process children often become more self-confident and empowered in their play with peers which typically leads to increased social and emotional development as well as the more obvious physical and sensory development that outdoor play experiences offer to children.

Teaching Children About Risk Assessment

These two children were both trying to climb the tree. The practitioner approached and addressed the safety issue of having two children trying to climb at the same time. The rule of one person having enough time and space to practice tree climbing was established. This also further reinforced the idea of taking and waiting for turns, exercising patience, and inhibiting impulsive responses, all important social skills when playing with peers.

One child took his turn first while the other went to play. He approached his first ‘ascent’ using only hands and feet. He

seemed to realize that this created instability and proceeded to flatten his body against the tree’s trunk. The practitioner observed this and narrated his process: “It looks like you feel safer when you hug the tree from time to time as you are trying to climb it.”

At this point, two children approached
on their horses. We talked about how
the climbing child was practicing
climbing the tree and how he was also practicing getting down safely. The practitioner noted that when children are practicing getting down it is safer if there is no one close by. This led to establishing a new safety rule which increased all three children’s awareness of assessing risk and safe practices.

Here the child is looking down to see how high he has climbed. He continued to do this during the experience. The practitioner reinforced this as safe behaviour: “I notice you are looking down to see if you are still safe; you’ve climbed up high – do you feel safe?” Phrasing it like this conveyed he was capable and had control of the situation.

A couple of times he tumbled out of the tree, albeit in a controlled type of way, landed on the ground and immediately picked himself up to try again. He was praised for his persistence and told that he was showing behaviour that all practicing tree climbers demonstrate before they achieve success!

At one point the child set his own goal by mentioning that he wanted to climb up to “that spot” indicating an orangey bit in the trunk where a layer of bark was missing about 5 feet up the tree.

The risk of climbing up the tree to about twice his height was outweighed by the benefit of him achieving this feat. When he finally descended and jumped down he exclaimed: “I did not know I could climb this whole tree!”