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Resources & Activities

Forest schools and risky play

Forest schools are becoming more and more prominent, benefiting children in a number of ways. Ottawa Forest and Nature School are leading the way with their amazing outdoor early learning program in a 900 acre forest! But can we bring outdoor learning into our early childhood programs even if we don't have easy access to a forest?

Outdoor Play
The World Around Us
Two children balancing on a log in the forest
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An “alternative” type of education?

Many years ago, forest schools were seen as an “alternative” type of education. But today that is certainly not the case as more people believe that children should have an opportunity to play and learn in nature. 

There is a common misconception that you need to have access to miles and miles of rolling hills and meadows to run a nature based learning program. And although this would be ideal, such an environment is not readily accessible to most early learning services. 

Nature based learning can happen anwhere

Nature can be found anywhere, not just in forests. There are nature based learning programmes all over the world that are located in little patches of land, with only a few trees at the back of a school. Or in the tundra in Northern Canada where there is very little forest. There are Korean nature based schools found in mountains, and there are nature based learning programs in city schools. The only limitation in terms of children’s capacity to learn and to play on the land is their imagination and what they’re allowed to do. And most importantly, what is supported by their educators. 

Risky play - isn’t it dangerous?

We have come to a place in time, were we realise that the major barrier for children to get outside is not their proximity to parks. It is not the lack of access to natural spaces. Instead, it is society’s, caregivers, educators, and various institutions fear of risk, and often with that, the fear of liability. It is a major barrier to our work, supporting children’s risk taking, and it is also a major barrier for children’s access to play, their right to play and learn in the natural world. 

The research on risky play, particularly out of Norway, shows that when children engage in “ordinary”, developmentally appropriate risky play like climbing a tree, or running fast, or just playing, the thing they are really seeking to experience, is not “danger”. They do not set out seeking to harm themselves or to harm others. What they really want to experience is probability. They are seeking to understand what they can possibly achieve, and what their bodies are capable of doing. This comes from a place of curiosity. “Will I be able to make it up the tree or not?”, “will I be able to jump off this rock onto the other rock?”, “How far can I throw this stick?”

Empowering children

But so often as adults who work with children, we dictate to them what they should and what they shouldn’t do. We tell them what is safe, and what is dangerous. But this doesn’t work. Children need to be empowered to make decisions for themselves. And they have the capability to do so! 

We often use the phrase “children are competent, capable and curious”, and experiences show that when we give them the opportunity to make those decisions, they actually make very wise decisions around what they feel comfortable with, what they are capable of what they aren’t. 

There are many challenges when it comes to promoting risky play, and we need to understand the value of risk. Simply put, in order to grow up to be healthy, active people, children need to engage in risk taking. 

How nature play supports risk taking  

Marlene Power from the Child and Nature Alliance of Canada shares some insights into how nature play can support children’s risky play. “I’ve seen children start school, and they may not have been in a physical environment quite like this and I’ve seen them learn how to walk on a trail, how to balance on a log. I’ve also seen children who haven’t necessarily been in an environment where you the environment changes. They need to adapt in ways that they do in the forest. For example, as it warms up, how are we going to take care of ourselves? Let’s put on our raincoats and our backpacks. Let’s get out our water bottles and have a drink. These are just some of those skills that you can see children developing, where they are learning to take care of themselves and to be more independent.”

Communicating with parents

Marlene tells us the value of communicating everything with parents to help them understand the learning that is happening for children when engaging in risky play in nature. They articulate to parents the type of play that children will engage in. They will be climbing trees, holding rocks, and building structures. Sharing exactly what risky play will look like really helps parents in multiple ways. Parents are excited that their children will have time in a place where they can swing sticks, build rock piles, and climb on things. They understand that there are a lot of barriers to children having experiences that promote risky play, and really appreciate that their children are supported to take risks as opposed to being prohibited from these types of experiences. 

Every child should have this opportunity

All children should have the opportunity to play and learn in nature. Whether that is in a tiny mud puddle at the back of their early learning centre, or in a big woodland. All children have so much to gain from having freedom and being able to lead their own play, and to have a voice in the learning process. 

Reflective Questions and Prompts:

  • How do give children space and time to engage in risky play?
  • What are your feelings toward risky play? Where do these feelings come from?
  • How can you promote the value of risky play with families?
  • What small changes can you make to your teaching practice, to give children opportunities to take risks in their play?

The Child and Nature Alliance of Canada fosters meaningful connections with the outdoors for children and youth. They believe that all children and youth should have the opportunity to play and learn in forests, parks, meadows and mud puddles. They work to connect children with nature through policy, research and practice. 


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