Spotting in Children’s Outdoor Play 

When supervising outdoor risky play we can allow children more freedom in their explorations and movements when we are in a position to effectively spot them.  

Basic spotting is something many parents do instinctively with their babies and toddlers as their child begins to master their newfound mobility skills. Many of us will be familiar with the hovering a parent does as a toddler climbs up a ladder the first few times. A watchful eye and a fast hand has spared many children from a much bigger knock to their head.  

The same principles can be applied to children’s risky play exploration.  In the context of forest schools the most common activity this applies to is tree climbing. Other instances might be crossing a creek or climbing a particularly steep slope.

What is Spotting? 

Spotting is a term frequently used in sports such as weightlifting, climbing and gymnastics. Spotters can be in place for safety and/or for guidance. Spotting involves physical contact and as such the lines of communication must be open between the coach and the child. 

The role of the spotter is to prevent serious injury to the participant. This generally refers to protecting the head and neck from the impact of a fall.  

Hazards of Spotting 

It is important to note that while spotting is a valuable safety tool, for some children the presence of a spotter can negatively impact their competence. Some children have learned their parents will be there to catch them if they fall. This can lead to children who make no attempt to catch themselves or who climb and tumble recklessly.  

It is helpful to make it clear to these children what your role is: You will stop them from getting hurt and that you will NOT catch them if they fall.  

Forest School Spotting Guidelines
  1. Communicate 
  1. Assess the landing 
  1. Position yourself 
  1. Falling Safely 
    Your role as a spotter is NOT to catch them!  
    It is to guide their body safely to the ground and protect the neck and head from injury.  
  1. Review 
    Check in with the child and make sure they are ok. Narrate what happened and how they can make changes for next time. Acknowledge their feelings, they may be afraid, adrenaline might be coursing though their bodies (and yours!) Make sure they take a moment before returning to play.  
    If an inappropriate or awkward touch occurs acknowledge it and apologize to the child immediately. 

Children have poor risk assessment until they reach 6 or even 9 years old. While we all inherently don’t want to die that survival mechanism can be come weakened through cultural influence. When we provide active supervision for young children when they are engaging in risky play we can prevent an injury that could be life altering.


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