How To Do A Site Assessment For Outdoor Learning

Two boys playing in the dirt

Outdoor learning is an adventure for both you and your students. However, just because outdoor education is an adventure, doesn’t mean that it should be dangerous. There are risks inherent in outdoor learning, however we can do our part to mitigate some of the hazards and reduce the risks for our students. One of the most important parts of mitigating the risks in outdoor learning is doing a proper site assessment prior to taking our students to a new learning space. 

In doing a site assessment, we are looking for hazards that could potentially harm our students. We want to identify potential hazards so that we are informed about the conditions of the site and how best to manage outdoor learning in that site. The site assessment is a vital piece of your risk management strategy

When to Do a Site Assessment​

Anytime you plan on using a new site, you should do a thorough site assessment before you take students to the site. Visit on your own first to decide whether or not the site is suitable for your needs and the needs of your students. If there appear to be any issues with accessing the site or obvious dangers, you will have to find a new site. If the site looks like a good option, then it’s time to do your site assessment.

You should do a thorough site assessment at least once a season. Also, if you haven’t been to a particular site in a long time, you should also complete a site assessment prior to taking your students to it again. If you are looking for a step-by-step template for conducting your site assessment, check out our “Get Outside Tool Kit!”

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What are You Looking For in your Site Assessment for Outdoor Learning?​

The purpose of your site assessment is to identify any hazards that might be present in your learning space. You then want to make a plan to mitigate these hazards and minimize risk. A hazard is anything that could potentially harm a student or staff member while they are using the site. Risk is the potential to encounter a hazard. For example, a hazard might be a rock sticking out of the ground. The risk would be someone tripping over it. Children running in the learning space would increase the risk of tripping over the rock. Outdoor education and outdoor play is inherently risky. However, a thorough site assessment can help to identify hazards and put a plan into place to minimize the risks. 

During your site assessment, you will be looking for anything that could harm someone using the site. If you have students who have special needs, you will also need to take their needs into account.

Some site hazards you may encounter are:
  • dead branches
  • tripping hazards, such as gopher holes
  • rusty nails or old metal
  • trees that children can climb
  • traffic/roads
  • open water
  • broken glass
  • needles or drug paraphernalia 
  • animals
  • poisonous plants
  • thorns or thistles
  • insects
3 children run towards a fort in the forest

Begin With A Site Description

The first part of your assessment should include a thorough description of your site. What facilities are available at your site? How is the site accessed? What are the plants, animals, and other features of your site? Is your site a public site or a private site? Having an understanding of what is in your space and the features in your space will help you figure out what the potential hazards are in your learning site.

Areas/Zones to Assess​

Your initial assessment needs to be thorough so that any potential hazards can be identified and addressed. You need to be looking high and low to address all of the hazards that might be hiding in your new site. 

Ground (Ankles and below): On the ground you are looking for tripping hazards as well as any litter, glass,  discarded needles, signs of animals

Grass/Shrub Layer (Ankles to Shoulders): In this layer you are looking for harmful or thorny plants, branches that could snag children, tripping hazards, insects

Tree Layer (Shoulders and up): In this layer you are looking for dead/broken branches, insects, territorial birds, shade from the sun

Structures: If there are structures present you are looking at the general condition of these structures and whether they pose a risk to your students. Broken fences, shattered glass, nails, rusty metal, or even old splintery wood can all be potential hazards.

Roads/Traffic: Are there vehicles nearby that your students need to be aware of? Or is your site near a busy road?

Access to the Site: Can the site be safely accessed by everyone? Are there any considerations that need to be taken into account, such as crossing a busy road, that may be risky?

People: Is there a chance that other people might be using your site? 

Assigning Level of Risk​

Once you have identified hazards, you will need to identify the level of risk each of these hazards presents. The level of risk relates to the level of threat that the hazard poses to a student. Will the hazard cause a minor injury that can be fixed with a bandaid? Or is there the potential for a more serious injury requiring medical care? 

Low: The hazard could hurt a student and cause minor injury. The injury could be dealt with through basic first aid. This might include scratches, scrapes, or bruising.

Medium: The hazard could hurt a student and cause an injury that requires medical care such as stitches or a break/sprain.

High: The hazard could cause death or a life-altering injury.

3 children run in the snow

Addressing the Hazards​

Once hazards have been identified, you need to do something about them. If a hazard poses a high or medium risk, actions need to be taken to minimize the risk to your students. Ideally, the risk should be lowered to a low-level risk or the site should be avoided. 

Some of the ways that hazards can be mitigated and minimized are:

  • removing tripping hazards or marking tripping hazards with trail tape 
  • teaching students to identify harmful plants, such as stinging nettle (or removing the plants if necessary)
  • setting boundaries to avoid dangerous areas, such as open water or steep drop-offs
  • providing extra supervision in high-risk areas, such as near open water
  •  cutting branches that could potentially fall or scratch a child in the eye
  • cutting branches that are particularly sharp and jagged on trees that the kids could climb

Daily Site Check-ups​

Each day you should also do a quick site check-up to make sure that things haven’t changed overnight. Vandalism, storms, or even just wear and tear from student use can cause new hazards in your site. Before you take your students out, do a run-through of your site to look for things such as broken glass, broken structures, or newly fallen tree branches. 

On-the-Spot Assessments​

Even with the most thorough of site assessments, nature (and kids) can throw some surprises at us. Be prepared to navigate new hazards on the spot. Some strategies for dealing with new hazards include:

  • using the hazard as a teachable moment and sharing with the kids what you plan to do about the hazard and why
  • having the students come up with a strategy for safely navigating the hazard
  • if the threat is immediate and potentially dangerous, having a procedure ready for moving out of the area
  • teaching the students how to safely deal with the hazard on their own

Teach Your Kids to Look for ​

Many sets of eyes and ears are better than just one. Teaching your students what to look for and what to do about a hazard both empowers your students and keeps them safe. It also empowers the students to help look after each other by keeping an eye on each other.

Weather Hazards​

Weather can change suddenly and become violent very quickly. Understanding the weather patterns in your area as well as knowing the forecast for the day is exceptionally important in keeping your students safe from extreme weather. Having a weather policy set up prior to taking your students to your site will help in making decisions about what weather is safe for taking students outside or not. Also having procedures set up for what to do in the case of sudden extreme weather can also help in keeping students safe. Winter specifically poses risks for our students, especially if they do not come prepared to be outside.

Now Let’s Get Outside​

Outdoor education and outdoor learning have so many benefits for our students. We shouldn’t let the potential risks keep us from getting outside with our students. Keeping students safe during outdoor education starts with a thorough risk management strategy including a site assessment. This site assessment allows us to identify the hazards that could harm our students and take action to eliminate or mitigate these hazards. 

With proper preparedness and planning, we can create safe and exciting learning opportunities for our students. We can allow all of our students to experience the physical, social, and mental health benefits of outdoor learning.

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