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Risk Assessing Outdoor Areas

Originally appears in the Spring 2014 issue

“LIFE ITSELF IS DANGEROUS. Life is full of risks, and we should hope it remains so. Without taking risks, no child would ever learn to walk or ride a bike. No adult would ever take up a new sport. No company would ever create new products,” writes Ken Finch, founder of the Green Hearts Institute for Nature in Childhood. “Thus, the goal shouldn’t be to eliminate all risks from our children’s lives, but to manage them and keep them in perspective.”

As a registered early childhood educator, part of my job is to risk-assess the school yard on a daily basis. I appraise the activities that children are interested in and the ones I have to offer them, looking out for any hazards that could befall my students. If there are any children with particular needs I determine the children’s likely response to the experience. Once my risk assessment is done, I am able to invite the children over to play. It is important to understand that if the play happens in a “safe enough” environment, it is not risk-free. I share the responsibility to be safe with my students. It is important that my students learn to assess and take manageable risks of their own.

According to author Jennie Lindon; “Children need challenge and excitement. If their play environment is made too safe and sanitised, the children will either slump into uninspired and repetitive play or they will find some way to spice up their play environment.” So the story I want to tell is about a snow hill in the back of our school. My kindergarten students would trade any toy or activity for the opportunity to play outside after a snow storm.

In the beginning of January, the snowplough truck left huge piles of snow in our school backyard. This “snow hill,” as the children called it, became a favorite spot for discovery and fun. After walking on the hills to evaluate if they were safe for the children to play on, I decided that a safer route was to share and discuss the conditions of the slippery and icy hills with the children. As we sat down to talk, we all took turns and reviewed the school safety procedures. The decision was made so the children could explore the smaller hill on the side of the yard first to have a sense of how to navigate their bodies on the uneven surface. After a short play time and practice they were ready to tackle the “big” hills. On our first time exploring the hills, we educators observed how unsure the children were about the slippery, high and uneven ice and snow surface on the hills.

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Rosa Barcotti is a Registered Early Childhood Educator who teaches at Bells Corners Public School in Ottawa, Ontario.