Risky Play the Forest School way!

We hear a lot about the importance of risky play (which we love to refer to as adventurous play!) these days in an age where supervision and safety are deemed paramount. Ironically it may be safer now than in the early 1900s, but a rapid increase in news means our ‘fight or flight’ as parent’s is hugely and constantly heightened.

To be a good parent it seems is making choices on behalf of your child. Where to play? Who to play with? What to play? What skills to practice? What to learn? What or where is safe? What does safe even mean?

Given our heightened flight or fight, could it just be that our choices aren’t always aligned with the natural growth and development that our children need? 

So, what type of play environment does your child really need to thrive in?

One thing to consider is that there are two types of memory – implicit and explicit. As adults our explicit memories are categorical, linking to a place and time that can be pinpointed and classified that give assumed value. Our children however dwell in the realm of implicit memory where recollection is unconscious and emotive.  How glorious! I have reunited with many Eco Explorers Mornington Peninsula Forest School families over the years … who still have their hearts so connected to the forest and community in which we journeyed only to discover that their now 7-year-old child can barely recall any of it… or even me!

How disappointing Or is it?

Our children need to build their foundations by doing, experiencing and interacting with life and each other. Their foundation is built in these early encounters and need not be recalled to be productive. They need to be felt by real emotions like excitement, fear, joy or even sadness. Kids seek what they need naturally and build their own self-awareness as they go. So how can we facilitate this and let them feel their way through these big emotions without getting in the way?

I have the privilege of guiding children along in our Forest School journey in the Mornington Peninsula where I live.  It is here beyond the walls of expectation, the programming and the schedules that the real evolution of risky adventurous play can play out. The elements are there – we just have to trust and follow.

Climbing to great heights, spinning and rolling at great speed, tools with dangerous qualities, elements such as fire and water or even wild animals, self-guided games – the thrill of venturing into new territories but ultimately the concept of rough and tumble can be explored within this safe space.

There it is again. What is safe?

A safe place is where there is trust. Trust in self and trust in each other, trust in their forest school leader and trust in the children leading the way. We learn and create safety together, we are not told it. We need to experience or be allowed to choose to create it. Our personal boundary is unique for us, whether that is ‘how high feels ok to climb?’ … it is not a playground measurement as often seen and only experienced by children; this risky play is their own natural instinct. Children soon learn that too high is scary and not high enough is boring.

Child led games often take the fore at forest school, as rules/boundaries need to be agreed on and consent a vital part of participation.  It is interesting to note that it is more common for children to seek the vulnerable position, like being chased or being underneath in a wrestle, because this is more risky!  Of course! And it requires more skill to overcome this adversity than to play the dominant role.  However compassion and vulnerability are paramount in reading expressions and body language, as this type of risky play unfolds.

Risky play benefits

Watching the children engage in these types of games as an adult can often bring up emotions in us… wanting to protect, interfere or give advice, but as we let go we see the magic evolve. Children are learning from each other by watching, feeling big emotions and being totally immersed in this type of adventurous child led play. These are the ‘memories and learning’ that will stay with them forever.  Whether it was tears shed in a prolonged sharing negotiation or frustration vented with turn taking in a hide and seek or predator prey game… their feelings are real. Their learning is real life learning. It is ok.

Forest school is like an endless and ever-changing playground. Nothing predetermined and no expectation – just a space in nature where adventurous play thrives. Children become inventive creators.  Solving problems with persistence, building resilience, balance and awareness through games and allowing these sometimes-messy adventures to evolve.

We do however come full circle. As we enter and leave our forest school space at Arthurs Seat …we discuss and reflect, consider and share. As the energy and emotion of deep play subside…  we wish you as a parent could be a fly on the wall… (or the tree close by) and hear the shared words of the young forest schoolers as they make meaning from their own real forest school experiences.

This article was written by Mornington Peninsula Forest School facilitator and primary school teacher, Alison Cooper.

Read more about our Forest School program here.

View our Bush Kids Forest School programs here for children aged 3.5 – 6 years

Visit our 3 hour drop off Forest School program here for children aged 4 – 8 years

See our full Mornington Peninsula bush and beach kids programs for 2024 HERE. 

This article was written by Mornington Peninsula Eco Explorers Forest School facilitator, Primary School Teacher and Social Anthropologist, Alison Cooper.