How to Develop a Forest School Mindset at Home: Risk Assessment (pt1)

(or for those of you who need a jazzier title:)

How to let your kids decide for themselves if they’re going to die

Plenty of you will be aware that your children have been attending forest school as part of their daily life in school. You may think it’s great or you may wonder what all the fuss is about. You may think it’s nothing more than a pile of muddy waterproofs to deal with once a week.

Those of you who home educate will be more familiar with the concept as you’ve probably attended alongside your kids, but you may well find that the following is helpful in illuminating some of the pedagogy behind the forest school ethos.

Forest School is a concept which is applied differently in a lot of settings, and unfortunately too many schools have lately turned it into an opportunity to deliver curriculum outside rather than sticking to the true motivators. Let me lay out some of the principles for you so that you can start along the road of turning your home into a forest school.

First and foremost, Forest School must be an opportunity for children to do what they want and how they want it. This means you cannot suggest craft activities, you cannot helpfully guide them towards an activity and you mustn’t stop them from doing what they’re doing!

I know right? You have to just let them?

Yes. Yes you do. You have to let them get muddy. You have to let them tie ropes around themselves and haul each other into trees. You have to let them try to rig up contraptions, repurpose furniture and generally do things that your inner-worrier is absolutely certain is a Very Bad Idea.

If you can’t do that, you can’t give them an authentic forest school experience.

Secondly, (or maybe this is firstly, but honestly if you can’t do the first thing you won’t still be reading), you have to give them the tools to do this. And by tools I do not mean axes and knives, (though you will need to give them those too eventually), I mean the risk assessment strategies needed to make good decisions – so that parents don’t have to be in control.

Sorry if this bit is a bit nerdy, but you need to understand the importance so here goes. It is really important, when raising children, that you allow them to develop a really strong internal locus of control. All of these catch-phrasey concepts we hear bandied about lately ‘mindfulness’, ‘growth-mindset’ or ‘autonomy’ all rely on this very principle. This is that a person needs to feel that they have the authority and capacity to make decisions about their own life and to take responsibility for the consequences of those decisions. That is the way that good mental health lies.

People who have been mithered, supervised within an inch of their lives and generally ‘helicoptered’ throughout their childhoods have a very strong external locus of control. They look for permission to do things before deciding, they seek praise when they’ve accomplished something and they point fingers when something doesn’t go their way. When they’ve become used to other people making decisions for them – they become incapable of holding themselves responsible for their decisions and therefore helpless to make changes that are needed as they move through the world. Roll on anxiety, self-doubt and a feeling of victim-hood.

So, why is this the most important bit of forest school? Because this is where we help children to decide for themselves what is a good idea and what is likely to lead to someone losing an eye. This begins by coaching them through risk assessing as a part of their daily lives.

Step One: How’s that going to end?

This is a risk assessment strategy that you can employ all the time, not just when your three year old is hanging upside down from a tree by a not-very-well-knotted rope. When you’re out and about, look at things that are going on and ask them to predict how that’s going to end. Builder on a bit of scaffolding? Someone changing an electric wire? A person standing at the stove-top?

All of these situations have the capacity to go wrong (and more people burn themselves on hot stoves every year than die falling out of trees, so actually if you’re worried about injury then definitely start in the kitchen!). So try to stretch your young person’s mind to get them thinking about all of the possible ways that a situation can turn out badly.

That way, when they’re standing 12 feet up on a stone wall, you can remind them to employ this strategy. They will work out for themselves, based on their own understanding of their own competence and the current environment they’re working in, how the situation is likely to pan out. Usually if they can foretell certain doom, they stop what they’re doing.

Step Two: Do you remember when?

If you’ve asked them to look to the future and they don’t see any problem with what they’re doing and you are still convinced that they’re about to die (they probably aren’t – they hardly ever do) then the next step is to try and get them to draw some relationships between their current situation and something that happened in the past. The brain is mighty powerful and the vast majority of its power comes from the ways in which it lays down and stores information – and it does this by drawing connections. Usually a little reminder of that time when they nailed a hole in their finger nail is enough to get them to take the hammer away from their brother’s head.

Again, this is not an activity that you need to reserve when death is on the line. Try encouraging children to think about other situations and their current situation when they’re doing all manner of things. This is a creative thinking strategy that will not only make them better at assessing risk, it will just make them a better thinker, full stop.

Step Three: Close your eyes

Seriously. Like I said, they hardly ever die. I mean that. I’ve been watching (or not watching as the case may be) children do Really Dangerous Stuff for 7 years now and I’m delighted to be able to say that my track record for injury is way lower than the local playground’s where all manor of bones have been broken during the same time frame.

So, if you feel like you’ve reminded them to assess their own risk and they are still intent on pursuing their plans, you need to walk away. Or close your eyes. In other words, you need to let them get on with it.

Allowing children to risk assess their play helps them to feel in control and always leads to more responsible behaviour and decision making. I know this is probably waaaaay outside of a lot of people’s comfort zones and I don’t think you’re going to be able to change over night. But I promise you, if you embrace the need to let children assess their own risk they will become more responsible than you ever thought possible.

Join me at some point in the near future, where I will discuss parts two and three of How to develop a Forest School Mindset at Home: planning and problem solving (2) and tools to be a better facilitator (3).

(The content of this article is drawn from my latest work How to Nurture a Problem Solver which currently does not have a publisher. So if you’re a publisher or agent who likes my work, feel free to get in touch!)

These blogs are being written and are free for you to enjoy, read and share. If you feel that you can donate please do, but if not please don’t feel obliged. A simple share on social media is great for getting the word out!

2 thoughts on “How to Develop a Forest School Mindset at Home: Risk Assessment (pt1)

  1. Great advice – informed by research and practical experience- given with such humour and understanding. I love love love your writing style Jenni!


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