Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Dynamic risk assessment or ‘shall we use our common sense?’

com·mon·sense \ˈkä-mən-ˈsen(t)s\ adjective  : sound and prudent judgment based on a simple perception of the situation or facts
People often say that effective risk assessments are the application of common sense. I tend to agree, but, different people have different perceptions based on their differing experience. The questions are then; how do we collect all that sense?  How do we hold it in common so that everyone in a team, organisation or partnership shares the wealth of experience on offer? This is the role, to my mind, of the risk assessment.  The process of collecting all that experience and judgment together to give us a ‘common sense’ of what is possible and how we make it work for the benefit for the participants.
But when children are given the opportunity to direct their own play and learning, then what they are doing could go beyond the collective experience which is recorded in those risk assessments. How do we make judgements then?
Recently one of the boys in a Forest School session produced some rubber bands from his pocket. The postmen drop them all up and down along the road we walk to the woods. We had been making musical instruments and he had an idea to make a guitar. But as he worked away, the thing evolved. “It looks a bit like a crossbow” he said and he was right! I knew that I hadn’t discussed with the teacher what we would do if the session moved into the manufacture of weapons. This thing looked lethal but, was the risk proportional to the benefit? He looked so excited and proud of his creation; he had worked well with another boy to bring an idea to reality and seen the potential over and above the initial starting point. These are all benefits, but would the benefits still exist if the crossbow did not? I know from experience that when you have made something that looks functional you have to know if it works or not. The benefit would be diminished if we didn’t know if it worked and we would lose the opportunity to tinker with it and make it work better.
 I asked him to sum up of all the responsibilities of having such a weapon and the safety precautions he should take. He came up with some very good ideas which we all agreed on. We decided that if he went beyond this agreement then I could claim the crossbow as my own forever and he fired it toward the brambles.  It didn’t just fire, it fired really well! There was a collective whoop. Something wonderful had been created. Our next session in the woods involved the manufacture of a lot of bows and arrows. We all had a new surge of creativity and engagement and all of this was managed without the risks outweighing the benefits.
We collect together our experiences in written risk assessments but the children are then exploring in another direction.  For any practitioner, like I found with the construction of the crossbow, there are always a series of judgements that take place when this happens.
Step 1: Oooh! Look at that, that’s interesting...
Step 2: Am I comfortable with that?
Step 3: Shall I intervene or is it fine to carry on?
Step 4: If we do carry on how will we do that safely? Etc...
I have come across this again and again. A few years ago I had responsibility for the effective implementation of health and safety for a large team of staff who worked with children and young people, outdoors, in a variety of environments delivering adventurous, risky, child led opportunities and we came across it there too. We adopted some work on Dynamic Risk Management done by Dan Rees-Jones of the University of Gloucester, part of the Playwork Partnerships network. He came up with a flowchart which follows the decision making path along the steps outlined above. Dynamic Risk management is about using observations and reflecting in that moment, are the benefits proportional to the risk?  As a team we adopted this, tweaked it slightly to fit our situation and used it as a shared protocol that helped us share a sense in common of what to do when we didn’t feel comfortable or something unexpected happened. It also helped us reflect on decisions we had taken and make better decisions again at future times.
I came back to this Dynamic Risk Assessment flowchart recently.  Even though I don’t work with a regular team any more I wanted something similar to use for my Forest School sessions. I work in partnership with teachers or other practitioners who I may only get to be with once a week. The more we have that helps us have a sense in common of what is OK, then the easier it is to be giving consistent message to the children.  The most fundamental changes stemmed from one of those ‘sit-up-the-middle-of-the-night’ moments of inspiration I had about the interrelationship between environment, risk and behaviour.
If you can’t re-establish play or self directed learning with intervention then it is the behaviour that is the problem not the environmental hazard. I don’t just mean the children’s behaviour though. I have witnessed practitioner’s behaviour causing risks and escalating risky behaviour in others. I also started to ask myself the question when does risk management become behaviour management? 
Here is a link to my reworked version, I would be interested in seeing what other practitioners think of it. I look forward to hearing your thoughts....
Author: Lily Horseman

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

The Theory of Loose Parts- or we get to play on the beach!

I had a lovely couple of days exploring the Northumbrian coast recently. I’ve been taking part in the pilot of Archimedes Beach School OCN qualification. There has for a long time been a debate over whether there are other environments in which Forest Schools can take place. One of the particular strengths of the woodland environment for play and learning is what the environment affords spontaneously. There is only really one other environment that is as rich in flexible resources that occur naturally and spontaneously, and that is the beach.
Simon Nicholson1, an architect looking at how to design effective places for people developed his well referenced Theory of Loose Parts based on his observations of children at play on a beach. “In any environment, both the degree of inventiveness and creativity, and the possibility of discovery, are directly proportional to the number and kind of variables in it.”
The beach with its shifting sands, its flotsam and jetsam, the shells, the sand, the pebbles, the water and all the fabulous and varied forms of life are all ready and available invitations for children to play and learn. As there is in woodland there is an element of ‘disorder’. In the woods and on the beaches the higher human authority isn’t so much in evidence and this makes it easier for children to make the rules themselves, in agreement with those adults who are present. It is the environment that gives permission for experiments and spontaneity to take place.
The beach also holds that wonderful point where land and water meet. I used to provide day-care for a three year old girl. The place where we were staying was a short walk through the woods to the shores of Lake Superior. We spent much of our time down on the beach and the place she was drawn too was the narrow strip where the water washed the rocks, the combination of sounds and shifting stones mesmerising her. Like a sandy beach where the ‘slush’ offers so much opportunity for play and learning, we would dig channels and canals and moats, observing and experimenting in complete mastery over our environment, until the water would remind us of the ultimate mastery of nature over that which humans create and the whole thing would wash away.
1 Nichloson, S: How Not to cheat children –The Theory of Loose Parts. Landscape Architecture v62 p30-35, 1971
Author: Lily Horsman

Monday, 31 January 2011

Whole brain learning or rolling down the hill with Frank

·        Whole brain, whole body or rolling down the hills
The more we know about the brain and how we learn, the more the idea that everyone learns in the same way is being re-examined. Theorists like Ken Robinson , Tony Buzan, Howard Gardener and Colin Rose all refer to the different functions of parts of the brain in learning.  Their theories explore the ideas that each individual learner has preferences in their learning styles influenced by past experience and biology and that each person learns in a different way.
Schools and teachers are starting to take this on board but to provide the perfect environment where individuals can learn and explore in their own way then there can be no better place than to take it outside and make it flexible and child-centred.  I used to work with a group of school age children in an after school club, that met outdoors, all year round. One boy there was the initiator of many of our best ideas. He was bold and adventurous and showed many of the qualities of leadership and imagination that make him an asset to any group. So you can imagine why his mum thought that coming to the club was a valuable experience for him when at school he was disengaged, unenthusiastic and struggling to keep up. The difference in his motivation and achievement was in a greater part enabled by the environment we were in.
Outdoor play and learning supports children’s ability to develop because the learning that takes place in outdoor environments doesn’t just focus on one way of learning. Rather it involves the whole brain, body and all the senses in the learning.  The natural environment is never the same as when you left it the day before. You may see a feather that has fallen in the path, a bird or a flower that has just unfurled. That wasn’t there yesterday. There are so many interesting smells, like rich leaf mould or wild garlic, the air is full of the sound of birdsong, the ground underfoot changes texture, now boggy, now springy with pine needles, you put out a hand to steady yourself and feel the rough texture of bark, and if you find some blackberries, wild raspberries, or fresh new beech leaves, and who can resist having a taste? This multi sensory experience ensures that with support everyone can access immersion and their potential can be extended through activities, which act like springboards into the natural environment and into learning.  Learners are actively, physically involved; learning and playing outdoors is not a spectator sport.
The environment is flexible and responds to the children’s involvement in it, giving them feedback. The immersion that a learner can experience needs to be followed up with the opportunity to feedback, reflect and evaluate their experience for contextual learning to take place.  In any rich natural environment the naturally occurring affordances offer a variety of tasks, and different ways to engage with them, being outdoors allows children to plan, do and review what they have done, all in the here and now. In short many of the factors which are said to be key to accelerated learning occur spontaneously in rich environments for outdoor play and learning.

Author: Lily Horseman

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Child led learning or how it feels to not be in charge.

Giving control over content and intent of play and learning to children.

Child-led learning sounds like it should be easy, just see what the children are interested in and excited by and then follow it. Actually, when you put it like that it is easy and in the context of outdoor learning  allowing the children to lead can be wonderfully simple to implement. There is so much to discover and interact with. It is hard NOT to be learning.  Where child led learning becomes more challenging is in the personal internal battles you face as a practitioner.
I am thinking for example about a time when a group of children decided they would have a ‘bug market’ where they could trade things with each other. They decided they could bring things from home, or trade conkers, interesting leaves and other found natural things.  They asked us to provide materials for signs, sheets to set things out on and they left the session really excited about the upcoming Bug Market.
It was only after they left that we started to realise the gaps we had left open, what sort of things would they bring from home? What were the ethics of trading live insects? Who would decide what trade was fair? How would we agree the rules?
One of the key lessons I have learnt over the years is to never imagine that I am in charge. It can be a real challenge to master my ego, not listen to the voice that says “Well, I know best because I am an adult.”  Or allow the part of me that already sees how this could go horribly wrong to be too dominant. 
When the children arrived for the Bug Market it seemed that the children had all understood what the rules were to be without me having to get them into a discussion. No-one brought their favourite toys to swap, you don’t have insects in a bug market, (and apparently I should have know this!) and the adult role seemed to be to keep currency moving around as more people wanted to be stall holders than to barter.
But child led learning doesn’t start the moment you decide to step back. When I walked into a woodland with a group of nursery children, most of whom had never been in a woodland before, it’s almost like they couldn’t see the potential, and didn’t know yet how to interact with it. It took a few sessions of going back to those same woods, with practitioners and staff providing encouragement and permission to the children to collect things they saw, asking them to describe their finds and to interact with them, to follow trails of feathers and touch mossy stumps and smooth leaves. Then the children started to notice and to lead. A long worm stopped us in our tracks as we walked up the path. The children are acutely observant, “it is coming towards me,” “now it is going to you,” “it is a letter C for Callum” “it feels sticky, like a fish” They put things in its path to see if that changes the direction it goes in.
When, during the following session we brought magnifying glasses and pictures of the minibeasts they could find they responded really positively and were quickly immersed and interested. Child-led learning can take time to emerge, as group dynamics settle and the children gain the confidence to lead and to believe their ideas will be listened to.  This is one of the reasons why effective outdoor learning takes place over time.  They start to see your role as a provider of resources, ideas, ways and means rather than the instructor, which can often run counter to the normal relationships they have with teachers and other adults.
The natural environment is an unpredictable place, you never know what you will find. You can plan and prepare for certain learning experiences to take place, and they may happen, but what you cannot plan for and only be receptive to, is the unexpected.
"In preparing for battle, I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable."
–General Dwight D. Eisenhower
Sometimes like with the Bug Market, the children are explicit about the direction they want to take, sometimes child-led learning comes about by following a particular line of questioning and sometimes an observation is the key. In the first week in the woods with another group, William picks up a sharp stone and uses it like a tool; another child watches him and copies, using a stick with the same motion. It occurs to me they are whittling. Even though I don’t usually bring tools in this early in a programme their behaviour intrigues me and I bring potato peelers for them to whittle with for the next session.
Outdoor play and outdoor learning provide enough scope for each child to be following his or her own line of enquiry and for them to collaborate with other children and adults. But those internal battles I mentioned... how do you feel about how you are perceived in your role? Not by the children, but by other practitioners, visitors, parents and parent helpers, a passing head teacher or an Ofsted inspector. What happens when the lines of enquiry that the children choose to follow includes squishing living things, making weapons, having battles....?

Article by Lily Horseman