Dynamically Assessing Risk
by Petra Eperjesi, Manager of National Programs
“There are eight children barreling towards a newly fallen pine tree. It’s brought down another tree with it, and they’ve both come to rest at about a 45 degree angle. There are branches sticking out everywhere. The pine’s root structure is standing straight up. And, oh yeah, it’s icy, because it’s mid-January in Ottawa. What do you do?”
I always use this example when talking to educators about dynamically assessing risk because it was a moment where my whole body went into alert and all I wanted to do was scream, “BE CAREFUL!”
Typically when I ask, “What do you do?” everyone responds with a barrage of their own questions: How old are the kids? How well do you know them? How well do you know their families? What time of day is it? Are you alone? How long would it take for emergency services to get to you? How much snow is on the ground? How hard or soft is it? What’s underneath it?
In short, they begin to think through all the factors that affect our perception of risk in any given situation. In other words, they begin to dynamically assess risk, or assess risk in the moment.
We all likely do a version of this. As a Forest and Nature School educator, I’m constantly assessing risk and making judgment calls when I’m out with students. Should we go on a hike? How far should we go? How cold is it? How hot is it? How buggy is it? How much poison ivy is there? How’s the group energy right now? Etc. Etc. Etc. Sometimes I keep the thought processes to myself, but often I’ll invite children into that process, especially in a high-excitement and (what I perceived as a) potentially high-risk moment as the one described above. Over the years, I’ve found a way to dynamically assess risk and to include children in that process in a way that works for me. It looks like this:
- Press Pause.
I cannot overemphasize the importance of having a stopping mechanism. Consider having a playful way to signal to your students that you want them to stop what they’re doing and come to you. At the Ottawa Forest and Nature School, we howl like a wolf or hoot like an owl, and we practice, practice, practice that when students first arrive so that coming to that call becomes second-nature for them, and so that we as educators can get a sense of who we might need to stick closer to. The call feels playful, but it is also serious, and the children know that.
- Get on the same team.
Ask students what it is they want to do, both so that you’re clear, and so that they have an opportunity to use their voice. Acknowledge that what they want to do looks fun, and, if appropriate, make clear that you want to make it happen if it’s possible to do it safely.
“Are you hoping to climb on that fallen tree over there? Yes? Oh that really does look like it would be so fun and I want you to be able to do that…”
- Share your concerns. (i.e. Identify the hazards and risks.)
“…but I’m feeling a bit worried. Can you think of what I might be feeling worried about?”
Depending on the students’ ages and the urgency with which they want to get to thepotentially risky play – i.e. how much focus I feel I can expect from them in the moment – I will either share my concerns right away, or think through the concerns with them.
In the example I began with, I asked the kids to think through what might be dangerous,and they were able to identify most of what I had had in mind: lots of branches everywhere could hurt us, ice on the tree meant we could slip and fall, and we don’t know how deep the snow is or if there are rocks underneath the snow, etc.
I like to frame the thinking through of the hazards and risks with the language of my ownfeelings, both because it’s then an opportunity to model talking about emotions, and because it levels the teacher/student hierarchy by revealing that I, too, am a person with feelings and worries.
- Generate ideas about how to be safe. (i.e. Mitigate the risks.)
“What are some things we could do to make sure we all stay safe?”
I am always reminded of how competent and resourceful children are when we give them the opportunity to show us, and when we support them to slow down and think through their decisions. On the day when my students wanted to climb all over the newly fallen trees, they were able to suggest all sorts of ways to stay safe: breaking off some of the branches so there were less poking hazards, but enough hand holds (that they tested for strength), checking the depth of the snow and underneath the snow for rocks, giving each other space so that if they did slip on the ice, they didn’t bring others down with them.
When children generate their own ideas about keeping safe, they are invested in them, and we as adults don’t have to work as hard to enforce arbitrary, extrinsic rules.
- Go for it! (Or don’t.)
Sometimes, after thinking through the risks and the ways to mitigate them, it feels right to let the kids go for it. On that tree climbing day in January, we went for it, and that tree became a pirate ship, and a hub of really rich play for the rest of that winter and spring.
But sometimes the risks cannot be mitigated, or cannot be mitigated in a way that brings the risks to a level that feels appropriate, and in balance with the potential benefits. That’s ok.
And other times, the risks that felt appropriate and manageable one day suddenly don’t on another. That’s ok, too. In fact, at the pirate ship, I noticed that we tended to need to leave within about 30 minutes because managing themselves there – giving each other space, moving slowly and carefully on the potentially slippery surfaces, etc – required so much of the children in terms of self-regulation and concentration, that at a certain point, it didn’t feel safe anymore because they needed a break.
Whether you decide to go ahead with the risky play opportunity or not depends on all (and more) of the constantly changing factors described throughout this post. What’s important is that we include children in the decision making process, or at least make that process transparent, relating to them with respect, as a fellow human being. I find that I rarely get push back or disappointed whining when we’ve thought through the decision together, and the kids usually actually agree with the choice to abandon an idea that didn’t feel safe enough.
There are 8 children barreling towards a newly-fallen pine tree…What are you going to do?