Explain the process of managing risk and how it applies to Forest Schools

What is risk management?

Risk management is the identification and assessment of any risks posed by an activity or occurrence. Forest school should be all about providing opportunities for children and young people to take risks or engage in risky activities in a supported environment.

The following definitions may be helpful when reading or writing risk assessments or planning activities that involve an element of risk.

Hazard Anything that has the potential to cause harm, either physical or psychological.
Risk The likelihood of potential harm from the hazard being realised.
Accident An unplanned, uncontrolled event which has led to injury to people, damage to property, damage to the environment or some other loss.
Near Miss An incident which could have led to injury or damage. The occurrence of a near miss should inform you and alter your practise.
Incident An event or occurrence caused by ignoring or not adhering to set rules, boundaries or laws.
Safety Taking positive steps to identify accident causes and implement suitable preventative measures.

After activities are assessed for risk a structured plan should be put into place to detail how the probability of the risk occurring and the impact of it being realised can be controlled or reduced.

Tool use and fire lighting present obvious risks but because forest school sessions take place outdoors there are a number of other inherent, and often uncontrollable, risks presented by the weather or conditions of the site. These risks have the potential to significantly impact the feasibility of what are usually even low risk activities. It is widely accepted that Forest school sessions are  safe to take place in all weather except thunderstorms or high winds for example.

Whilst near misses, accidents and incidents should all inform future practise the process of risk management should be proactive not reactive. Risk management is a continuous process. As parameters, such as weather or the condition of a forest school site, change so does the probability and potential impact of the risk. When running sessions it is important not only to risk asses prior to the session but also re-evaluate on the day and in context of the client group you are working with. Activities that pose little risk to one group may pose significant risk to a different group or if the weather worsens.

Blame culture and the benefits of risk

It is important though that as well as analysing the potential risk of an activity that it’s potential benefits are also considered. If an activity poses a moderate or even high risk it may be that it still offers a benefit that outweighs the chance of potential harm that could be caused were the hazard realised.

In a society of increasing litigation and a rise in “blame culture” many schools, organisations and providers are justifiably concerned about liability should something go wrong. In the past this fear has extended to teaching unions advising teachers to boycott school trips because of the increasing risks of prosecution when things go wrong.

This has the unfortunate impact of children missing numerous opportunities to take part in support their learning and development. This attitude is slowly shifting. Play England’s publication Managing Risk in Play Provision: Implementation guide advocates that activities and opportunities should “offer children and young people challenging, exciting, engaging play opportunities, while ensuring that they are not exposed to unacceptable risk of harm”. Providing you have adequate risk assessments in place which are regularly reviewed and that these are adhered to by staff and children you should be protected from litigation.

Recently there has been a number of studies into the role of risk in play and learning and the long lasting benefits on children’s development. Providing opportunities for appropriate risk taking will support the development of children. Play England go as far as stating in their position statement on Managing risk in play provision that even when risks are taken and injuries occur there are benefits because “Such experiences have a positive role in child development. When children sustain or witness injuries they gain direct experience of the consequences of their actions and choices, and through this an understanding of the extent of their abilities and competences.” For many children their environment is so carefully managed forest school may be the only place they are able, free and encouraged to take risks. It could be argued that forest school practitioners have a duty to provide opportunities that present a level of risk.

The benefit of risk taking is supported by Mortlock’s adventure philosophy. Mortlock proposed the existence of four basic “adventure states”, which progress in intensity from:

  • Play: Characterised by little emotion through relatively easy participation in activities which are below the person’s skill level.
  • Adventure: Characterised by enjoyment and excitement, where a person’s is using his/her capabilities more fully, but the person maintains control over the situation and his/her self.
  • Frontier Adventure: Characterized by peak experience, which emerges from a person experiencing adventurous challenges very close to his/her limits. If the person succeeds, then generally a peak experience is had, but there is real risk of pushing too far and falling/failing, leading to Stage 4.
  • Misadventure: Characterised by a person choosing or being forced to participate in challenges beyond his/her capabilities, resulting in negative emotions (fear, hurt, etc.), possibly injury and even ultimately death.

Mortlock argued that it is in the Frontier Adventure state in which people will develop the most. It is worth bearing in mind that these states are subjective and vary from person to person. What one person would class as play might be misadventure for another and vice versa.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *