One of the most important benefits for children who attend forest and nature school kindergartens is that they are allowed to engage in what's called 'risky play'. Risky play is defined as any type of play that is thrilling or exciting and that could result in physical injury. Leading researcher Ellen Beate Hansen Sandseter from Norway, has been researching the phenomenon of children's risky play and came up with 8 categories or types of risky play.
1. Playing at heights. Children love to climb things, especially trees. When I was younger, I always went to my friends house and the first thing we did was climb the tree in her front yard sitting there for an hour just chatting and enjoying the feeling of sitting in the tree tops. The sense of joy in climbing a tree and sitting in it, securely holding the branches is a great childhood activity that needs to be brought back!
Make sure trees don't have any loose or old branches. If they do, tell children how to notice and mitigate these areas.
Always supervise children under your care when climbing and try to trust that they know how high they can go.
If you need to, you can enforce a specific height limit like 3 feet or as high as ______ (something they are familiar with).
2. Playing at high speed. Children like to run because they are developing their gross motor skills. Movement is important and experimenting with high speed movement allows children to test the limits of how fast they can go. We have all seen children sled down a hill at a fast speed, bike down a hill very quickly, or slide down a slide fast! At my outdoor school, we allowed children to slide down the hills at the Brickworks in the winter after checking for hazards and removing any hard objects. They loved it!
Supervise children doing high speed activities that are in open spaces with less hazards around.
Teach children how to fall using their hands ensuring no one has hands in their pockets. Learning how to fall is important.
3. Playing with dangerous tools. Children want to try and use tools like knives, hammers, axes and can if they know how to use them and show capacity to follow rules. I had children as young as 5 using whittling knives to whittle sticks that we stuck into a garden for labelling and also taught older children how to split fire wood. It is a great opportunity for children to learn responsibility and to feel capable of doing something useful.
Tips- Teach whittling rules such as keeping a blood bubble- safe distance between participants, carving away from yourself, and how to sit during whittling. Check to make sure everyone is using the rules and having a safety plan if something doesn't.
Use potato peelers instead of whittling knives for younger children.
4. Play near dangerous elements. Children like to look closely in ponds and throw rocks in water. They also like to help prepare fires and sit near one. If children are given opportunities to understand safety around these elements, they can enjoy unforgettable experiences. Last year, we took hikes year round beside a creek. The children loved seeing the frogs and then icicles in the winter and formed lasting connections to these elements.
Tips- make sure you explain the rules and boundaries before attempting this type of play with larger groups
If children are around a fire, use some stones to create a boundary around the fire pit that no one can enter into
Near water, children may need to stay a specific distance from the pond. Ensure they know that distance or have an adult around if they are doing something like fishing or searching for frogs.
5. Rough and Tumble play. Children, especially boys in my experience, really love to play fight. When all members are consenting, the play fighting is a fun and necessary outlet for them. I found that allowing this form of risky play is necessary and female teachers especially should make sure they aren't being bias surrounding these forms of play. When I allowed for this play, I also noticed girls joining in and noting that all children can enjoy and need it.
Tips- make sure all children are 'consenting' before involving in rough and tumble play.
Try to let the children work out any disagreements before stepping in.
Use your best judgement to step in when necessary and supervise this type of play at all times :)
6. Play where children can 'disappear' and feel lost. This is really a form of risky play that involves trust. I used to allow children to go somewhere where I could just hear them and not see them for a specific amount of time. The children were given whistles to alert me if something was wrong. I was always close by but just having that sense of being alone helps children to trust themselves, it improves the relationships between adults and children, and gives children a sense of autonomy within limits.
Tips- have a safety plan. When you 'howl' like a wolf, the children run back. Do this a few times before attempting to let them play where you can't see them to ensure you can 'evacuate' a situation if necessary.
If there are older children, they can act as a supervisor in place of the teacher.
This is safer in a forest or woodland environment than a playground where too many children are playing. Smaller groups of children works best.
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I'm a teacher, outdoor educator, forest school practitioner and all round nature lover.