Over the last month I have been asked several times why I went hiking in icy caves in the winter having very recently gotten my energy back after a post chemo blood count plunge. Because I could? The photo above was the last one I took before slipping on the ice and breaking my shoulder. Not the best way to end the day, particularly as I was in the caves at the time and soon discovered it is physically impossible to haul yourself up a 25 foot rock face when you have injured your arm to that extent. The first question I asked the surgeon was “why can’t I lift my arm?” to which he responded, “because you can’t lift your arm.” (If at this point you are wondering how I got out of the caves, it involved over 30 rescue personnel from three counties. Go big or go home. Really, I would have much rather been able to just go home).
And so this incident has had me thinking a lot lately about risk. What it is? How do we recognize it? Why is it important? What are its educational implications? To answer some of these questions, I do what I usually do and went back to an earlier reflection where I wrote about teachers using the phrase “be careful” in our Forest School. Every time I heard these two words it grated. I really believe that the phase is said out of habit and also from a place of genuine concern and care but I think that what children hear when an adult says, “be careful” is “you are not capable”, “you do not know how to keep yourself safe”, “you are not able to make your own decision.” So we banned the phrase. And in so doing we embraced risk. Children need to take risk, adults need to take risk; risk is a manifestation of that energy that pours through us all.
When we began KOLTS Forest several years ago we engaged in a research study where we closely considered the well-being of children in nature. One of our tasks was to keep pedagogical reflections around our work with How Does Learning Happen, Ontario’s Pedagogy for the early years. I went back to reflect on these notes as I considered risk. The reflective questions and my responses follow below:
Well-Being: Nurturing Healthy Development and Well-being
“Children thrive in programs where they can engage in vigorous physical play in natural outdoor spaces and playgrounds that present manageable levels of challenge. While these environments need to be safe, it is also important for them to provide children with interesting opportunities for a reasonable degree of risk taking (HDLH, p. 29).
Question for Reflection: How can the environment be considered to encourage children to engage in manageable risk?
It was impossible not to consider parallels between the indoor and outdoor environment during the time spent as a researcher and educator in forest school. Indoors, manageable risk is of course always considered (sometimes with the intent to avoid it) and hopefully included as a planned but also in all likelihood, an artificial challenge. There seemed to be very little need to encourage children to take risks in the forest. Logs called out to be balanced upon, trees called out to climb, mud lay in wait to engulf rubber boots, crawling, illusive creatures waited for a brave small hand to pick them up. The area beyond our immediate Forest School classroom was a constant draw. Here there were much taller trees to climb (managing the fear of height), lakes to gather water from (managing the risk of falling in), steep hills to navigate up and down (managing the risk of tripping and losing balance), logs to cut open (managing the risk of sharp scissors).
After a short period of time we agreed to rethink and then abandon the use of the term “be careful.” It was shocking to come to the realization of how frequently this term is used. A child trips and an educator says “be careful.” A child accidentally knocks another and an educator says “be careful.” A child balances on a fallen tree and an educator says, “be careful.” This term, “be careful”, although it might be seen as a term of endearment or caring, is also likely to be seen by children as a comment on their ability and their self efficacy. Was the tripping purposeful or simply something we all do when we walk through the forest and are confronted with an unexpected root? Does a warning of caution actually assist a child to balance in a more efficient manner? Does this term “be careful” also unintentionally say to a child: “I see you are not capable of keeping yourself safe?” In Forest School we agreed that in fact the children are capable of self sufficiency when it comes to considering the safety involved in manageable risk.
Over time educators were asked to inquire of a child who asked for assistance to climb a tree or balance high on a log, “Do you feel comfortable?” If the answer was “yes”, then the child was invited to try on their own, suggested with the rationale that children should not be “assisted into” situations involving some risk where they do not have a sense of their own comfort level and ability. If the answer was “no”, then the response was usually, “don’t do it then.” It was heart warming to notice that most children at this point did engage in the risky activity anyway. I wonder if asking for adult help is a habit for children? Does this request for help, even when the courage and ability to try out the risk exits, suggest that children feel a heightened need to ask permission? Might they feel that only an adult has the power to assess their ability?
“…refers to a state of being genuinely involved and interested in what one is doing. For children, this happens in play that evolves from the child’s natural curiosity – active play that allows children to explore with their bodies, minds and senses, stimulating them to ask questions, test theories, solve problems, engage in creative thinking, and make meaning of the world around them” (HDLH, p. 35).
Pedagogical Reflections on Engagement:
Question for Reflection: What barriers exist that may limit some children’s ability to engage in active exploration, play, and inquiry? What adaptations and changes might be made to ensure the inclusion and participation of every child?
In the early days of KOLTS Forest School the children seemed to reenact a “relationship dance” from scripts they had developed indoors with both adults and children. The “strength” in relationships seemed to rely on dependance, reassurance, assistance, the superiority of adult knowledge, and in some cases what appeared to be an unnecessary level of supervision, monitoring, rule reminding and comments of caution. These early relationship parameters did little to support the drive of children to be independent, powerful, free, exploratory, courageous and to experiment as they tried out new challenges, terrain and invitations to take risks.
Over time the importance of trust became evident. Some educators relaxed as they observed children making decisions about their actions and explorations, based on their abilities, interests, comfort level and the potential for engagement. Throughout the seven weeks, some educators held on to the practice of hand holding, some judgement of messiness and unnecessary safety warnings. These practices had a noticeable impact on the sustainability and depth of active exploration, play and inquiry.
Pedagogical Reflections on Expression:
Expression: Fostering Communication and Expression in All Forms
“Traditionally, educators have found that much of their communication with children involves directing them – giving instructions, telling children what to do, and correcting their behaviour – rather than really connecting with them in a meaningful way. However, an approach that emphasizes listening, responding to, and building on child-initiated communication and conversation can be a more effective way to promote children’s language acquisition and their development of social skills, empathetic understanding, and ability to pay attention. Asking for and considering children’s ideas in joint dialogue can help to strengthen their sense of autonomy, their competence, and their critical thinking skills” (HDLH, p. 41).
Question for Reflection: How can you make sure that every child, regardless of his or her communication abilities, is heard?
I feel such a strong bias here that it is difficult to separate observation from a strong and heartfelt belief. Teaching and learning is about a community of individuals who have come together for a common purpose. A cornerstone of this community is respect of each other and of the Other (the capital “O” designating and Other, anyone who is not you). Because the forest school was emergent, educators (although they spent a great deal of time planning around children’s emerging discoveries and leads and in pedagogical dialogue) were unable to anticipate what might happen. The meaning making came from the children as they moved in and out of the forest school space. We could not predict the appearance of elusive salamanders, growing in a rotten log, flowers falling from trees, osprey swooping over our heads or fish swimming up to us at the shore of the lake anymore than we could predict the water that went from snow to rain to sun, cold to warm to cold again.
When educators have preconceived ideas and expectations of what children will or even might do in a more traditional classroom space, they can easily adopt a “directive” stance to education, as they take ownership over the process. Because children are who they are, curious, quick, divergent, whole body learners, this approach is doomed to be challenging, thus creating even more opportunities for the educator to tell the children what to do in a spiral that keeps the educator in a position of power and control and the child at the mercy of limited and prescribed freedoms. In the forest, there is a consent and beautifully varied invitation to be free. Rules are based on safety and as such are almost never broken. When one child steps over a logical boundary, another child gently reminds them, almost always before an educator can do so. The children work, play, live in community with one another in the forest.
Question for Reflection: What preconceived fears do you have about enabled risk taking? and how can you find a way to overcome these and find a balance that you feel comfortable with?
My biggest fear is the discomfort felt by adults. I have observed that when an adult feels uncomfortable around a child engaging in risky play, they unintentionally “over help” which in turn makes the situation unsafe. For example, reaching out to grab a child’s hand when they are already balanced high on a log is bound to make them lose their balance and fall.
The word “enabled” is also a challenge. It takes courage on the part of an adult to trust that a child is capable of assessing their ability to take risk. My background as an early childhood educator and a professor is filled with health and safety cautions and precautions. I have not been accustomed to seeing children stand by a lake, balance on a fallen tree, carry scissors around a forest or work with a stick. I found balance in the continual demonstration of confidence and capability in the children. Over the course of the seven weeks we did not so much as pull out a band aid. How many teachers can say the same of their indoor teaching practice?
So the bottom line about risk is that children need it. “It is a powerful catalyst for growth that helps them develop good judgement, persistence, courage, resiliency, and self-confidence” (David Sobel ~ Nature Preschools and Forest Kindergartens). Risk is good for children. Risk is essential for children. But risk is also essential for humanity, democracy and freedom.
Tightly constrained by the enfeebling of a risk-averse, health-and-safety-obsessed society, many children are unable to light fires, paddle canoes, make shelters, use knives or cope with darkness. Further, children are discouraged from acts of physical courage and this is more serious than it appears, for we learn with our bodies as well as our minds – or rather we learn with the mind-body – and when we see our physical selves modelling bravery, our sense of moral courage, political courage, emotional courage or intellectual courage is heightened.
Jay Griffiths ~ Kith
Powerful, sobering words from a women whose work is a plea to return children to the freedom, spirit, awe, wonder and adventure of nature. This call is not just for the benefit of the child but a strong political call to bring people back to nature, nature with all the risks that come with it, before it is too late.
…insidiously demanding that children must always seek permission for the most trivial of actions, that they must obey the commands of others at every turn. Children today are not being beaten into obedience but being eroded into it. The risk-averse society creates a docility and a loss of autonomy which has a horrible political shadow. A populace malleable. Commandable. Obedient.
Jay Griffiths ~ Kith
So I clearly believe in the essential nature of risk. But was it this human need for risk that brought me into that deep icy cave? I don’t think it was. Some might say it was reckless and I think this is a term we need to think about. To be reckless is to have no regard for hazards or consequences. A risk poses a chance of injury. A hazard poses a likelihood of injury (Sobel, 2016). Children need to be protected from hazards as they don’t recognize them as such. An adult who recognizes hazard and choses to forge ahead anyway is by definition being reckless. In fact in my adventure that winter day I even broke my own rule, asking my daughter to help me because I was scared and unable to repel down the cliff on my own. Why?
In considering my choice the word reckless didn’t quite work for me either. The decision seemed to me a bit unwise but I never imagined broken bones, police officers, firefighters, search and rescue and paramedics! But there was something there that kept niggling at my subconscious and when I went back to my reflective pedagogical notes above I found what I was looking for, “power and control”, “limited and prescribed freedoms”.
I think when a person has power and control taken away, when they feel like what they are able to do is limited and prescribed, by illness, medication, treatment, they react. In the same way when children are without freedom and control because they spend their days being managed and directed about by adults they too react. This reaction can easily be mistaken for risk. It can easily be mistaken for recklessness but I think it is something else. So what is it? My new word, rebellious action. “When people feel their freedom and power has been taken away they engage in rebellious action” (Jan Redford ~ End of the Rope: Mountains, Marriage and Motherhood).
I got sick and I had to be careful all the time and I gradually lost my power and my freedom. I went into that cave just because I could. Just because I wanted to feel powerful and free. Children who lack power and freedom might be reckless, might engage in rebellious action as I did but children who are invited to take risk will just be children who are powerful and free.