PrimaryHealth & Wellbeing

Forest school – Should we encourage children to take risks?

Forest school tire swing

Should we promote children taking risks at forest school? Qualified forest school leader Sabina Khanam investigates…

Sabina Khanam
by Sabina Khanam
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Schools are places where the safety and wellbeing of children are of paramount importance, and rightly so. So how does this fit in with encouraging children to take risks at forest school – often ones that could result in physical harm? 

This was always a preoccupation of mine when I started out as a forest school leader seven years ago. It’s still at the forefront of my mind in every session I lead.  

Forest schools risk assessment

Of course, every effective forest school leader will have well-written risk assessments in place. This includes everything from fire-lighting and chopping wood with an axe to building a shelter or climbing a tree.

However, as is always the case in schools, in practice, things are rarely such plain sailing. I recall a session where I had to keep one eye on the capture of a millipede (the holy grail of minibeasts on our site!), while simultaneously keeping the other on a child who was whittling a stick with a sharp knife.

I did contemplate taking the knife from the pupil so that I could look away. But I chose not to. 

Benefits of forest schools

Should we encourage our children to take risks like this? Couldn’t we simply teach about trees and the changing seasons in the safety of a classroom?

Why not ask children to read about the ever-elusive millipede in a book, rather than making them hunch quietly by an overturned log in the pouring rain waiting for one to scuttle past? 

Risk-benefit assessment

For us as forest school leaders, the benefits must outweigh the risks. Our starting point is always to assess the likelihood of harm and how severe that harm could be. We then balance this against the potential rewards of the outcomes from the activity.

If, after an assessment, an activity is judged as high risk but beneficial, then measures will be put in place to mitigate the risks so that the activity can go ahead. 

For example, we wear protective clothing when felling a tree. We change the adult-to-pupil ratio according to the needs of the children.

We rig up a shelter when using tools on a rainy day to avoid wet slippery hands and teach children about keeping a safe distance from a fire.

Rather than trying to avoid all ‘high-risk’ activities, it’s about being aware of the risks, and managing them properly. 

A compelling reason for allowing children to take measured risks is to better train and equip them so they can recognise and manage risk throughout their lives. In forest school sessions we actively encourage this for children. 

Risky play

Recently, a group of Year 2 pupils decided to create a slide using pallets. They worked out the angle the pallet needed to be placed at in order for them to land safely on their feet, rather than tumbling into the sandpit with a thump.

Apart from the wealth of scientific information they were gathering (why a wet pallet allowed them to travel more quickly than a dry one, and whether their waterproofs or wellies were better for this activity), the children assessed the potential harm and made changes accordingly. 

Offering all pupils the opportunity to take risks is fundamentally important. Many of them will not have had the chance to challenge themselves in potentially risky play or learning scenarios before.

For those children, their environment may be so carefully managed that forest school is the only place where they are free, and actively encouraged, to take risks.

Early in my teaching career, I recall a parent firmly insisting that I should not allow her child to run in the playground. This was purely to avoid him ever falling over and hurting himself!  

In our woodland area, an environment filled with logs, trees, bushes and long grass, children naturally want to explore. Not only does this environment challenge learners, but a number of other risks may arise due to our changeable weather affecting site conditions.

Thus, the children must learn how to respond to dynamic and unpredictable situations. 

As the outdoors is increasingly seen as an important place for people to spend time in, surely we need to train children how to be safe, while maintaining a healthy interest in exploring?

Ironically, for many children, forest school may be the only place where they can ‘safely’ take risks. So, forest school leaders have a professional (and moral) duty to provide opportunities for this.

Through risk-taking, children gain an awareness of their own limits and boundaries, and ultimately, learn how to be safe. 

Sabina Khanam is a qualified forest school leader. She has twenty years of primary experience across both KS1 and KS2, including several as an English coordinator. 

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