Risk

It’s been quite some time since I last posted here on the blog. The school year has ended, and my life has seen some big changes, with more on the way. I’ve said goodbye to the wonderful K-pals and their incredibly supportive families, and I’m now preparing to move to Ottawa to begin a new job.

 I will be working at Forest School Canada, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to providing exemplary and accessible Forest School programming, and developing national standards and a community of practice in Forest and Nature Schooling in Canada. This August we will be offering “taster sessions” of Forest School for children ages 2.5 through 10 at our new site at the Wesley Clover Campground, just west of Ottawa. (So come! Camp at the campsite, send your kids to Forest School! Click here!)

 I had some unfinished posts about my last adventures with the K-pals waiting to be polished up and published, and while the time for that seems (mostly) to have passed now, interestingly, the theme running through those last unfinished posts is one that’s really on my mind these days as I sit on the cusp of uprooting my life and taking on a new role: risk.

One day back in May our wanderings took us to a part of the school property we had never explored before – the Clay Pits, which are part of a creek bed at the bottom of a steep gully. The K-pals spread out wide over the whole area, some using a rope to climb up the mini waterfall that the creek makes at that spot, others enjoying the experience of squishing clay between their fingers from the safety of flat, dry ground, still others rappelling down the side of the gully with another rope set up there for that purpose, and a couple of K-pals sitting up at the top of the hill with me, observing the action below. 

I spent most of my time at the clay pits thinking about risk. As we neared them, I felt myself go into high alert, positioning myself close to the spots I perceived to be most dangerous, keeping a particularly close watch on specific children, and readying myself to bark instructions about where and where not to go, and how and how not to get there.

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I held myself back from giving those instructions though, because of this article, which was actually posted by Forest School Canada on their Facebook page. The part that stuck out most to me in author Peter Gray's examination of the parenting practices of hunter-gatherer societies is the idea that adults in these groups trust their children to have an innate sense of the risks they were able to manage. One quote: "Infants and young children [among Inuit hunter-gatherers of the Hudson Bay area] are allowed to explore their environments to the limits of their physical capabilities and with minimal interference from adults. Thus if a child picks up a hazardous object, parents generally leave it to explore the dangers on its own. The child is presumed to know what it is doing." (Lee Guemple, "Teaching Social Relations to Inuit Children," in T. Ingold, D. Riches, & J. Woodburn (Eds.), Hunters and Gatherers 2, 1988, p 137.) 

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I don't know that as a teacher I would totally withdraw from managing risk for and with my students, especially at the beginning of the year, or at the beginning of our relationship. But one of the wonderful things about having developed a relationship over the course of a school year (or two, for some of us!) is that we - teachers and students - know each other well enough that, instead of directing them, I felt I could watch quietly and carefully how the kids negotiated the risks, ready to jump in only if I needed to. 

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As the minutes ticked by without incident, as I watched the kids slowly pick their way down the side of the gully like mountain goats, help each other get unstuck from the mud, fall in the creek and get back up again, I started to relax. And then I noticed that, without any input from me, each little group of students had chosen an activity in the gully with a level of risk that was totally appropriate to them. Those who chose to stay at the top and not even venture down the steep hill were those K-pals who I would have wanted to nervously micromanage had they come down, and there are many K-pals who I would not have permitted to rappel down the side of the gully, but those kids were not even interested in that activity. Most interestingly, because risk seemed to be the dominant factor in their choice of activity, the K-pals were playing with students that they'd rarely gravitated to before. Some of those new groupings persisted into other contexts as well.

As the time comes to uproot myself and my husband, to make a new home in a new city, to figure out a new role in a new organization in a field of education in which risk and the healthy negotiation of it is a central element, I’m holding on to the belief, like those parents that Peter Gray cites have in their children, like the belief I had in the K-pals in May, that I haven’t taken on a risk I can’t manage, and that it will lead me into relationships, places, and activities I wouldn’t otherwise have discovered.

Here’s to new adventures! I hope you’ll keep reading…