Risk Management for Outdoor Education

Many teachers fear taking students outside due to the many risks involved. These risks become even more scary when we start to think about taking our students to more remote or rugged areas or venture away from the school-yard. However, we can do our best to mitigate some of these risks and allow our students to experience some beautiful and exciting locations. Risk management in outdoor education may seem daunting at first. However, by following a few key steps, we can do our best to mitigate the hazards and decrease the risk for our students.

Prior to visiting any new outdoor learning space, a formal risk assessment should be completed. As a teacher, you should never take your students to a site that you yourself have not already visited. Your risk management plan will include a few key pieces:

  1. Establishing your policies and procedures (if you haven’t done that already)
  2. Doing a site assessment
  3. Setting expectations with your students
  4. Providing proper supervision

If you are looking for a step-by-step worksheet for conducting a site assessment, check out our “Get Outside Toolkit.”

Risk versus Hazard​

The first step in managing risks in outdoor education is to understand the difference between a risk and a hazard. This is especially important when you are communicating with students, families, and administrators about risk during outdoor education. Hazards are any elements that could potentially harm someone. A risk is the likelihood of coming into contact with a hazard. Outdoor education has inherent risks involved due to the hazards that are present in a natural setting. However, as teachers, we can do our best to mitigate some of the risks by decreasing or eliminating the hazards in our learning sites. 

Potential Hazards​

Hazards are elements that could potentially harm or hurt someone. Prior to any outdoor education activity, you should do a thorough site assessment to identify and address any hazards that may be present in your learning space. Each learning space will be different so it’s important to do an assessment of each site you will use. You may also have hazards that are specific to your area that you will need to be aware of.

Potential hazards could include:

  • tripping hazards
  • fall hazards
  • falling branches
  • protruding nails, sharp rusty metal, etc.
  • broken glass or other materials that could cut a child
  • open water
  • poisonous plants
  • animals
  • insects
  • traffic/vehicles
  • broken or unsafe structures (sheds, picnic tables, etc.)
  • other parties using the site
  • ice
3 children climbing a tree in a forest

Setting Up Policies and Procedures​

You are going to need to spend some time thinking about your outdoor education policies before you get started with taking your students outside on a regular basis. Your policies will be an integral part of managing risk in your outdoor education program. These policies and procedures outline the expected behaviours and conditions for participating in outdoor education. Your procedures will detail how to respond to particular situations. Having both policies and procedures in place will help you to feel confident in dealing with situations as they arise since the responses have been thought out in advance and shared with families, students, and administrators. A step-by-step worksheet for developing your outdoor education policies and procedures can be found in our “Get Outside Tool Kit.”

Examples of Policies​

Policies outline the expected conduct for your program. Your policies may include what types of conditions you will allow your students to participate in, behaviours that are expected, and what is expected of teachers or volunteers in your program. Your policies may also need to be approved or aligned with your school policies. 

Some examples of policies you may need to develop are:
  • behaviour policies
  • equipment use policies
  • volunteer requirements
  • weather-related policies (inclement weather)
  • staff conduct policies
  • supervision policies
  • reporting injuries

Having these policies in place prior to your students engaging in outdoor education can help you manage the risks involved in outdoor activities. 

Examples of Procedures​

Procedures are a step-by-step guide to follow in particular situations. You may have procedures for getting students’ attention in an emergency, what to do if someone gets hurt, or what to do if a danger is nearby. It is a good idea to teach these procedures to your students and also to practice them regularly. 

Some procedures you may need to establish are:
  • communication signals
  • what to do if someone gets lost 
  • what to do if someone gets hurt
  • what to do if a teacher gets hurt
  • what to do with unexpected behaviours
  • what to do if you encounter an animal
  • what to do if you encounter a person on your site that makes you feel uncomfortable
3 children using a magnifying glass to build a fire

Site Assessments- Looking for Hazards​

It is important that you spend time thoroughly assessing your learning site prior to taking your students outside. In your assessment, you are looking for anything that could potentially hurt a student. This assessment should be done at least once a year or even once a season if you don’t return to the same site often. In your assessment be sure to consider the needs of your students. If you have students with particular mobility needs your site assessment should ensure that your site can accommodate their needs as well. 

1. Identify the Hazards​

In doing your site assessment you will want to ensure that you are looking at your site at all levels. In general, you will want to check:

  1. Ground/grass level- looking for any tripping hazards, nails, glass, metal, discarded needles, fresh signs of animals
  2. Shrub level- looking for tripping hazards, branches with thorns that are directly in the pathway, poisonous plants
  3. Tree level- looking for dead/rotting branches, insect hives/nests, things that could scratch someone in the eye
  4. Structures- broken structures that could cause an injury
  5. Traffic/Roads- are vehicles a danger, are their roads nearby
  6. Other people using the space- Is there the potential for other people to be in the space 

2. Addressing the Hazards​

Once you have identified the hazards in your site, you need to make a plan to address these hazards. First you must determine the level of risk involved with each hazard. 

Will the hazard cause:

  • a minor injury (can be dealt with on-site)
  • a more serious injury (requires medical attention)
  • or a life-altering injury (death, head injury, spinal injury)

If there is potential for a serious or life-threatening injury then you must find ways to either eliminate that hazard (for example setting the boundaries so that students stay away from it) or minimize the hazard. 

Some ways that hazards can be minimized are:

  • marking tripping hazards
  • removing dead branches that could potentially fall
  • setting specific boundaries
  • providing extra supervision around spaces such as open-water
  • making a space off-limits
  • removing broken furniture
  • teaching safety procedures around tools, open water, etc.

Risk management in outdoor education requires ensuring your space as safe as necessary. In reality, you will never be able to eliminate every hazard in an outdoor space. Creating an overly sanitized and safe place removes some of the fun and novelty of outdoor education. However, we do not want our children to be exposed to unnecessary dangers during their outdoor education time. As a teacher, it is your duty to mitigate the hazards that could potentially seriously hurt a student. 

3 children climbing on a rock

Establishing Expectations​

Outdoor education time is not meant to be a free-for-all even if your program involves time for unstructured play. During outdoor education, children may be less supervised than when they are inside a classroom. The nature of outdoor education also has some inherent risks that students may require structure, boundaries, or instructions on how to navigate. Prior to doing any outdoor education activity with your students, it is important to establish expectations and boundaries with your students. This way both students and teachers are clear on what is expected of them in terms of behaviour and conduct.

I find it useful to involve my students in setting expectations, especially if students are older. Students have more of a sense of “buying in” if they know that they have had a hand in setting up the rules.

Supervision​

Another integral part of managing risks during outdoor education, it is important to have adequate and appropriate supervision. In determining your supervision requirements you need to consider the age of the students, the activities, the site, and the hazards that may be present. It is also important that all adults understand their role in navigating risks during outdoor education. All of the adults need to understand the policies and procedures that you have established for your program. 

For example, if there is open water near your site, you may require direct adult supervision near the water at all times. Children using tools may also require direct, one-on-one supervision. You may also have children with special needs or behavioural needs that will require more intense supervision than others. It is important to know your students and your site extra well so that you can ensure that all needs are being met. 

Reporting Injuries​

Despite your best efforts to minimize the risks, injuries can still happen. Even in the best-supervised setting, children can hurt themselves. For this reason, it is important to document and report injuries to the proper authorities. Your school may have a specific injury report for that needs to be used. You should also document the conditions and site in which the injury took place.  Understanding what led to the injury could be helpful in preventing future injuries from happening. (An injury report template can be found in our “Get Outside Tool Kit.”)

a boy sits on a log in the forest

Let’s Get Outside and Thrive…

Risk management for outdoor education may seem daunting at first. However, a bit of thought and effort can ensure that you get your students outdoors and exploring in the safest way possible. There are many examples of policies and procedures that have been set up already. In fact, your school policies may be a great place to start in creating your own outdoor education policies. Each site will have its own unique challenges and benefits. A bit of effort and thoughtful planning can help your students get outside and experience nature. A planning template for creating policies and procedures as well as conducting a site assessment can be found in our “Get Outside Toolkit.” This toolkit provides checklists, teacher worksheets, and planning guides to make getting outside with your students safe and easy.

If managing the risks of a more rugged area isn’t for you (or maybe isn’t for you yet) why not try just taking your students out into the schoolyard. Being close to the school and in an area that is safe and maintained can be a great way to start getting your students outdoors and experiencing the benefits of nature. There are plenty of great ways that you can get your students outside and enjoying nature without the stress and preparation of taking them to a new site. You can even find ways to integrate your curriculum into your outdoor learning time. 

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