Supporting a balanced approach to risk in schools: what I am doing, and how you can help

4-year-old boy on a rope swingI am pleased to announce that this Autumn, I will be putting on some training on risk, targeted at schools. The workshops, organised by the Council for Learning Outside the Classroom (CLOtC), will look at why outdoor learning and play matter, what a balanced, thoughtful approach to risk looks like, and how this can be developed in schools. The half-day sessions will be repeated in four venues across England in Sept, Oct and Nov. See the end of this post for dates and venues, and head to this CLOtC web page for bookings.

One key focus will be the use of risk benefit assessment (RBA) to support well-grounded judgements. This will cover both the formal curriculum (school trips and outdoor lessons) and judgements about school grounds and play activities during break times.

Girl pond-dippingMost of those working in play and playwork are familiar with RBA in theory, if not in practice. To a degree, this is also the case in forest school and outdoor learning and adventure activity contexts: a move that I called for in my 2010 report Nothing Ventured [pdf link]. I suspect this trend is growing, now that RBA is explicitly supported by the Government’s Health and Safety Executive. The approach is also well embedded in innovative school playtime programmes like the PlayPod initiative run by the Children’s Scrapstore Bristol, and the Natural Play design projects developed in Scotland by Grounds for Learning.

However, RBA is still a novel approach for many educators. What is more, to my knowledge it is rare for schools to bring together its thinking around risk in curriculum and non-curriculum contexts. So I hope the sessions will break new ground and stimulate new thinking – as well as supporting better play and learning experiences for children.

Children in school playground with scrap materialsOf course I would love you to help spread the word about these events. But I would also like to hear your views. How can schools be won over to a more balanced, thoughtful approach to risk? Are the barriers different in schools to other contexts like parks and play services? Those of you who think you have made progress in schools: can you share your thoughts on what has helped – and what has not been so helpful – in overcoming these barriers?

Seminar dates (more details here)
26th September – The Mead School, Wiltshire
16th October – Viridor Laing Education Centre, Bolton
23rd October – The Parks Trust, Milton Keynes
7th November – Hazel Oak Special School, Solihull

16 responses to “Supporting a balanced approach to risk in schools: what I am doing, and how you can help

  1. Sounds like a course well worth going to. In my limited experience being as honest & open with parents from the start about my outdoor play approach & views on risk taking have ensured I have never had any problems or issues.

  2. I know that Early Years settings could really benefit from this too. There is a real issue now about activities, accidents, risk assessments, liability and blame. There is an expectation that children will be kept 100% “safe” and that if an accident happens, someone is culpable. Consequently, young children are faced with increasingly anodyne play experiences, devoid of challenge and lacking the opportunity to develop independence skills and physical capabilities.

  3. My husband works in forestry. Recently he came back from a presentation from someone visiting from Vancouver Island where in recent years the number of deaths has been reduced from something like 22 per 10 million tonnes of wood extracted down to 3 per 10 million. His advice was “Health and safety is not about paperwork. It is about good communication, personal responsibility and looking out for each other.”

    From my own experience I tend to agree. I’m tired of seeing risk assessments which are nothing more than superfluous pieces of paper. I wan to hear more positive conversations about enabling children to experience freedom, autonomy, risk and challenge.

    One thing I am also wary of are specific play policies in schools which further add to the paperwork mountain. I think ensuring that play is integrated into the approaches to learning and teaching is more appropriate in schools as a way of validating play both formally and informally. I also believe that looking at risk, not in the context of health and safety but in terms of the necessity of risk as part of fostering creativity and as a key life skill.

    Apologies for a ramble – typing outside on a sunny day on an iPad doesn’t help for coher

  4. Thanks for the comments – sound advice, kierna123. David – agree that’s a problem, though forest school initiatives are changing the mindset (as I heard yesterday at the Recliffe Children’s Centre annual conference). Juliet – spot on – and a nice touch at the end there (a bit of sunstroke perhaps?)

  5. The sessions sound really interesting. I’ll definitely try to come to one and share it with others too. I agree with all of the comments above. It is important for schools and settings too. We’ve been interested in this for a while, dabbling with Risk Benefit assessments and trying to influence other schools near to us. I am not a fan of excessive paperwork, so we don’t do it ! I think Heads often want to give their children more interesting and challenging experiences but fear the repercussions. The permission to take these type of risks has to come from the Head / Manager. I think it is interesting that when you ask them about their own experiences or what they allow their own children to do at home they might be more adventurous. I think it comes from years of being put under pressure from Local Authorities (or their own perception of what they are allowed to do) which makes them start from wanting to prevent the worst case scenario, rather then considering the benefits of trusting the children. This then means they make choices such as banning climbing trees or even going into bushes to play. When we show them photos of what we do they see what is possible and at least think about what they do. I think because our children climb trees, leap on a rope swing etc they are far better equipped to face all of the challenges of life and just feel good about themselves and what they are capable of. I also think it has an amazing impact on supporting the children to develop not only their physical skills but also so much more, such as their problem solving and negotiation skills. I think many a school playground could benefit from a bit more of this going on !

  6. Dawn Ewan - Kincardineshire Forest School

    Totally agree with all said above, but I believe teachers are slowly beginning to feel more confident with allowing children to take risks, mostly when outdoors. In Scotland, one of the experiences in our Curriculum for Excellence is to involve children in risk assessment and develop resilience. Your workshops would be very welcome North of the Border!

    It is our support staff – Pupil Support Assistants, who seem more nervous about risk taking amongst pupils, perhaps as they are not heavily involved in in-service training and professional development as teachers. Also, as there are a decreasing number of adults to supervise breaks due to staff cuts, many of the PSA’s I work with and talk to feel like they have to increasingly sort out behaviour issues in a large space than have time to play. Opportunities for real free play experiences and allowing children to make their own judgements and develop resilience would sort this problem out but I feel more guidance and training is needed to support staff in this area.

  7. Reblogged this on SoccerPlayGroup (Wyckoff, Bergen Co., NJ Area) and commented:
    For parents, educators, and coaches, I think there’s some important information here.

  8. I agree with so many of the comments above: risk management is a key life skill that we should allow our children to experience and learn about from very early ages. It is about personal responsibility, practical decisions and awareness of real risk vs percieved risk.

    I also strongly agree that we should be clear about the benefits of what we are doing – RBA is a ‘must’ in my view.

    I do think one of the challenges is the fear of litigation (often misplaced), however we do need to recognise that we have a section of society that is encouraged to sue, and benefits from it. How we work with those parents is a real challenge in my view. It is this fear that drives so many of the backward decisions that are made around risk.

    I would also like to challenge so many risk assessments. As an example – on some risk assessments there would be statements such as ‘RIsk: falling off log.’ Now that is not a risk. Hitting the floor in a way that you would hurt yourself significantly (i.e. more than a bruise or scrape) is a risk. Falling off a log to most children is fun, and teaches them much about thier physical literacy, and how high you can fall before it hurts.

    Furthermore, many risk assessments focus on environment, procedures and access. In my previous job at an outdoor centre, we re-visited the RIsk Management forms and approach, with a much stronger view to personal responsibility, as well as children and staff’s competence and experiences. Our approach to risk became a much more engaging activity with staff particularly, who felt they should question and be involved in those risk management policies in a very practical way, and in turn felt able to really engage groups with managing risk.

  9. We have just finished our first year of a Nature Kindergarten (see in the public school system here in British Columbia.The children spend all morning whatever the weather in the forest their school backs onto. The forest does have cougars who are quite shy, but predators nonetheless….and plenty of logs, trees, streams, etc to engage with. Other school districts are starting to develop their own programs. We are often asked about our risk management protocols. We decided not to share our particular set of guidelines rather we encourage people to enter into the process of understanding their particular context. We felt that the process which is on-going with modifications happening as need be is key to being alert, relaxed and care-full. I am happy to share our thoughts and happy to hear feedback from anyone interested.

    • Thanks for this comment Enid – pleased to hear that the forest school/nature kindergarten philosophy is spreading in Canada. It is often tempting for those leading change to be invited to offer quick solutions – and for those following them to adopt them unquestioningly – and I think you are right to be wary of this. And thanks for the offer to share your thoughts – I am sure practitioners in Canada (and perhaps beyond) who want to hear more will contact you.

  10. Dawn and Matt – thanks for your comments (which for some reason were filed as spam by WordPress’s systems – hence the delay in appearance). Dawn – it does seem like there is more central support for play, outdoor learning and a balanced approach to risk north of the border right now. I also agree that non-teaching staff in schools are crucial, and may need training and/or other support to build a playful approach. Matt – re: fear of litigation – the risk is often overstated, but as you say it is a factor. In my view, providers and councils need to take a robust approach: do a good job managing the risks in a balanced way, communicate the ethos very clearly with parents, and fight cases where they think they are in the right.

  11. Dawn – watch this space for a Grounds for Learning resource for training supervisor staff and teachers in play. We have a series of 11 videos, training notes and discussion questions forthcoming. If you drop me an email, I will sign you up to a notification when they are published publicly.


    • I would love to receive that update Matt as I am currently working on a Playground Project as part of my BA Childhood Studies to give the children more play opportunities

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