Updated: Nov 3, 2019
Risky play was part of my childhood, skateboarding, roaming free and unsupervised with friends in the park and woods behind our house. We climbed trees, built bonfires and we had clear boundaries which we had to adhere to if we wanted our freedom. One of the best ‘toys’ I remember was an air rifle which I used for hours to practice shooting micro-machines in my garden. I have many fond memories and plenty of when things didn't turn out so well. Yes sometimes accidents happened but no one suffered any lasting harm. We were trusted and given the chance to learn from our mistakes and as a result we learnt to make better choices. It’s these kinds of experiences in childhood that are rapidly disappearing today.
One of the early proponents of appropriate risk taking was Colin Mortlock, author of his 1984 book The Adventure Alternative. Mortlock was an avid adventurer and strong advocate for exposing people to genuine risk experiences at the edge of people's abilities. He was part of the change that saw a thriving outdoor education movement established in the UK. Mortlock observed through his work that what is adventurous for one person could be too easy for another or dangerous or harmful to someone else and so attention to the particular individual is essential to provide challenge and risk experiences at the right level. Mortlock developed an adventure theory outlining four adventure states:
Stage 1: Play- Characterised by little emotion through relatively easy participation in activities that are below the persons skill level.
Stage 2: Adventure-Characterised by enjoyment and excitement, where a person is using their capabilities more fully but maintains control over themselves.
Stage 3: Frontier Adventure: Characterised by peak experience which emerges from a person experiencing adventurous challenges very close to the their limits.
Stage 4: Misadventure- Characterised by a person choosing or being forced to participate in challenges beyond his/her capabilities resulting in negative emotions (fear, hurt etc.) possibly injury or even death.
Mortlock was influenced by Kurt Hahn who believed in education which called forth and developed the deepest qualities of character and compassion. Hahn knew that people are capable of much more than they generally realize, but that due to post-industrial values and lifestyles in modern Western society, there is much less real physical risk and danger which results in fewer opportunities for people to discover their inner capabilities.
“There is more in you than you think”
- Kurt Hahn
In Singapore we recently visited a new nature playground designed for young children to roam freely with little supervision (at our own risk of course). This was a welcome change to the usual santised, exposed and formulaic playgrounds we too often find (but it was lacking loose parts for play). A pre-school group showed up and spent fifteen minutes coaxing the children to pose for photographs before they left for the traditional playground nearby. I saw one young child who tried to play by running down a gentle ramp pulled back by the adult holding her hand and told that she must walk because she will fall.
I blame what I saw on the idea that misadventure is such a terrible thing that it must be avoided at all costs. The teacher must have been worried that the child would fall and get upset, however, at worst the fall would have been a little slip on the bottom. Rather than realising that this could be an opportunity for learning motor skills, confidence and building resilience, the teacher removed this opportunity for the fear that misadventure would occur and traumatise the child. This approach can be counter intuitive, as summarised by Richard Louv who suggests that “An indoor (or backseat) childhood does reduce some dangers to children; but other risks are heightened, including risks to physical and psychological health, risk to children's concept and perception of community, risk to self-confidence and the ability to discern true danger”.
In the summer of year 9 of my school we all knew that we would have to run the 1500m. We never ran any kind of distances in our P.E classes to prepare. We didn’t look forward to it, but most of us knew we’d be OK and we were probably better off afterwards (Stage 3). We also all knew the few kids who would suffer, feel humiliated, and who were miserable in the lead up to the event and only felt worse afterwards (Stage 4). My school could perhaps have taken a different approach which catered for different abilities or better prepared the children but it illustrates Mortlock’s approach. Apart from Stage 1 which is labelled as play (and a poor word choice since we know play to be the natural learning method for every child) Mortlock’s theory provides a clear framework for the way we approach risk during our forest school sessions. One of the core principles of the forest schools ethos is that participants are provided with opportunities to experience challenges, including risk, appropriate to themselves and to the environment.
“To adventure in the natural environment is consciously to take up a challenge that will demand the best of our capabilities - physically, mentally and emotionally. It is a state of mind that will initially accept unpleasant feelings of fear, uncertainty and discomfort and the need for luck, because we instinctively know that, if we are successful, these will be counterbalanced by opposite feelings of exhilaration and joy”
- Colin Mortlock, The Adventure Alternative
We know that the learners we take into the forest are each unique so there is no forced challenge that everyone must undertake. We seek adventurous challenges such as walking for longer distances, balancing along logs, climbing uneven terrain, jumping off of boulders and simply going off of the path into denser vegetation. Nature provides variety and therefore choice and different levels of challenge. Our learners often struggle the first time, but the next time they take on the challenge with renewed conviction and soon they will be ready for the next one. The challenges we provide are identified through observing our learners, finding appropriate environments, placing the learners in control and allowing them to push their own limits when they are ready. In this way they learn how to make better choices reducing the risk of misadventure.
We watched our group over a course of six months move from grumbling and complaining about having to walk to running off ahead, looking for their favourite marker points on their route and choosing where to go. We moved further and faster and with more joy and I am excited to see what new challenges we can find in our forest next term. The parents who come along to forest school are strong and patient, they don't give in to requests for carrying which is often the easy option, they believed in the process and understood that it takes time.
It’s the job of the Forest School Leader to identify the fine line between where the challenge is optimal (stage 3) and the point when the learning stops and suffering begins (stage 4). This is a skill that requires sensitivity and a good understanding of the individuals involved, because getting the challenge right results in an unrivalled sense of joy and accomplishment which is worth the small risk of misadventure.
Louv, Richard. (2005) Last child in the woods :saving our children from nature-deficit disorder Chapel Hill, NC : Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill,
Mortlock, Colin (1984) ‘The Adventure Alternative’ Cicerone, UK.
Claire is a mum to two young (and sometimes wild) children and enjoyed a very outdoorsy childhood collecting acorns, making daisy chains and sifting dirt to get the perfect pile. Once upon a time Claire was an enthusiastic ultimate frisbee player and recently taught pre-school sports classes. Claire is on a mission to help City kids experience a wilder childhood through the Forest School approach to learning and founded Wildlings offering Forest School and environmental education in Singapore to do this.