Are They Hazards or Acceptable Risks?

By Erin Kenny ©2017

Would you consider nettles growing in a daycare center’s outdoor space, where crawling babies have access, to be a hazard or a risk? Would you consider a ground hornet nest in your outdoor classroom’s main area to be a hazard or a risk? One community’s hazard is another community’s acceptable risk. I guess the real question is: How much do we want to sanitize nature to “protect” us humans?

At Cedarsong Nature School, we believe a better strategy is to teach our children how to commune safely with the natural world of which we are all a part and the dominant message we convey is that we must learn to respect and co-exist with all aspects of nature. So, when a ground hornet nest appeared in our Main Camp area, our teachers discussed what the best course of action was. After studying the flight path, we realized the hornets were flying straight up out of their hole and then flying horizontal well above the children’s’ heads. We decided to rope off the nest area with red tape and talked with the children about how to give the hornets their space. The children successfully co-existed with those hornets for three months until they abandoned their nest. The children learned a lot about wasps by having this close-up experience with them.

When I visited the Netherlands six years ago on a study trip, I observed a nature daycare that served children as young as one year olds and many of these children were still crawling. The outdoor space was quite lovely with a hand wrought hand pump for access to water. The doors were left open so children could go outdoors anytime they wanted. Many of the international educators on that trip were astonished to see a patch of stinging nettles growing next to the hand pump; they were incredulous that the school had not removed them. I shared the story about my own child who was raised to identify the plants in his environment and by the time he was two he could identify 15 different plants. The first plant he ever learned to identify was nettles. He got stung once and never again. For years, he called the plant “Owie”.

Hazards come from nature in the form of weather like high winds, lightning and floods; fauna like wasps, ticks and poisonous snakes; and flora such as poisonous plants. Different geographical regions have differing challenges regarding keeping the children safe so they can truly immerse in their unstructured free time in nature. It is important to establish a safety protocol for when any of these hazards is encountered and to conduct on-going hazards assessment to ensure your site continues to be safe. At Cedarsong, our biggest hazard is from high winds and the potential for falling trees or limbs. Therefore, once a year we hire a forest health expert, a certified arborist, to walk the school site and assess any dangerous trees. We then remove any trees that are found to be hazardous.

I have heard it said that a risk is something a child can see – and therefore be aware of and assess – and a hazard is something a child cannot see. So, for example, a child might appreciate the risk of slippery ice on the surface of a pond yet would not understand that they could quit literally fall through and drown. At Cedarsong, we believe it is our responsibility to allow children to experience moderate risk while keeping the children safe through diligent attention to hazards.

According to Ellen Beate Hanson Sandseter (2007), children naturally crave these six risky behaviors:

  • Exploring heights (climbing)
  • Experiencing high speed (running)
  • Handling dangerous tools (sticks)
  • Being near dangerous elements (water)
  • Rough and tumble play (wrestling)
  • Walking alone away from adult supervision (hiding)

The line between hazard and risk is wavy and often dependent on a certain culture’s attitude towards what constitutes hazard as opposed to risk. In the U.S., preschool-aged children handling dangerous tools, such as real saws and knives, is seen as hazardous while in European forest kindergartens it is viewed as an acceptable risk. I strongly believe that the moderate and acceptable risks such as climbing, playing with sticks, engaging with water and running on uneven ground build physical strength, teach valuable natural science lessons and develop awareness and response skills which are critical to a young child’s healthy development. I believe these are lifelong skills that will be helpful in assessing other types of risk as the child ages.

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