by Chris Filler, Forest School Canada Course Facilitator and Assessor
It was a misty/rainy/sunny BC interior weekend in April when I had the pleasure of spending a few days in the Creston Valley surrounded by white capped mountains and engaging with a group of committed educators around the important topic of risky play.
Teachers, principals, early childhood educators and policy administrators all in dialogue about the value of risky play, as well as the associated impacts of the decline of such play on communities, families and children of all ages. Folks travelled from far and wide (some through an unceremonious spring snow storm which closed local mountain passes!), to be a part of this conversation. Many were coming to share stories and strategize on the effects of risk aversion on students lives and play opportunities, and many had already begun taking steps to incorporate risky outdoor play into their practice.
We began by acknowledging the Ktunaxa First Nations on whose unceded traditional territory we were gathering to share stories, to learn and to play together. We continued through the morning sharing our childhood play memories; remembering how it felt to be trusted to roam and adventure, to look out for one another, to make our own decisions, solve our own problems and to live with the consequences of our actions. Many participants in this workshop deeply understood the holistic value of students engaging in what we refer to as ‘outdoor risky play’. They were able to appreciate its many and varied benefits largely because what they were tapping into was essentially their own lived experience, deep embodied learning rooted in the emotional realm, tied deliciously to all five senses and therefore not easily discarded or forgotten. I was amazed by the intricate detailed accounts of childhood outdoor play memories that were in some cases thirty or forty years old retold with such accuracy, seemingly imprinted as if music on a vinyl record. The group spoke passionately of feelings of excitement, joy, uncertainty, friendship, mindfulness, sadness, fear, exhilaration, and camaraderie.
Back then however we didn’t label it ‘risky play’, it was just what we knew to do (or rather what our parents told us to do – “go play outside with your brother/sister/friends, and just make sure to be back when the sun goes down or the streetlights come on”). The stories recounted daring acts of courage, adventures with no certain outcome, learning personal limits through failure, while taking responsibility for the wellbeing of each other, and yes – bruised knees and broken arms. The group also voiced lament for what has been lost, and what we continue to lose in terms of opportunity for kids to roam and play in the natural world. We talked about how in schools we do a fantastic job of dissecting the sad reality of the extinction of species, however we fall far behind in acknowledging the damage done through the “extinction of experience” (Pyle, 2011).
This group of concerned educators spoke passionately from their combined decades of practice about the ‘invisible hurts’ to their students’ mental health manifest through drastic increases in screen time, social isolation and alarming rates of reported anxiety from kids as young as seven. We equated this rise to an epidemic of “indoorification” (Sobel, 2017) the result of many interwoven social norms bringing forth a protection paradox where we intend to safeguard our children from harm, yet we end up accomplishing the exact opposite. Tales were told of schools who shut down natural play areas for fear of litigation because of an isolated injury or fall from a tree, making it all that more difficult for children to experience the many benefits that this type of play affords.
Other topics discussed ranged from our roles and responsibilities and how to maintain a professional duty of care, we introduced risk benefit assessment, and we brainstormed approaches to communicating these crucial yet often misunderstood messages to parents and other community stakeholders.
In the end we left our two days together inspired to act yet possibly with more questions than when we started out. Acknowledging that there is no easy answer to the complexity of this important work, there was a sense of possibility and positivity about the future of this movement. I left this workshop with much hope for the Kootenay region, through the stories of so many dedicated educators and professionals willing to advocate for outdoor play, so that children and many future generations will have space and time to craft their own lasting wildhood memories.
A big thank you to the staff at Canyon Lister Elementary who hosted us, and to both Creston Kids Outside Society and Columbia Basin Environmental Education Network who helped organize and sponsor the recent Risky Play two day workshop April 15th & 16th.
Pyle, R. M. (2011). The thunder tree: Lessons from an urban wildland. Corvallis, OR: Oregon State University Press.
Sobel, D. (2017). Outdoor school for all: Reconnecting children to nature, In Assadourian, E., Mastny, L., & Worldwatch Institute. EarthEd: Rethinking Education on a Changing Planet. Washington DC: Island Press.