Safety During Outdoor Education

Children learning outside

Fear and as well as managing safety during outdoor education are probably one of the main reasons why teachers stay indoors. During any outdoor education activity, no matter how big or small, safety should be your first priority. However, managing safety doesn’t mean that you take away all of the fun in outdoor learning. It really means that you take into consideration the risks that could be involved with going outside and actively take steps to mitigate some of the risks. With so many factors to take into consideration, safety can become a daunting factor in planning activities. 

School or camp insurance protocols and parent perceptions of the outdoors can create tricky situations to navigate. I have created a list of 10 ways that you can promote safety during outdoor education activities, but still allow your students to enjoy the freedom of learning outdoors. This is not an exhaustive list and of course, your location and situation can help determine which factors are most important. However, whatever you do, the most important factor is always to plan ahead.

For a more comprehensive guide to creating policies and procedures for your outdoor learning time as well as conducting a site assessment, check out our Get Outside Tool Kit. In this tool kit you will find everything you need to get outside with your class and keep everyone safe.

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 1. Plan Ahead and Be Prepared

Planning ahead is the most important step in ensuring the safety and enjoyment of all of your students/campers. (It also might be necessary to be in compliance with your insurance.) In order to make sure everyone feels like they are in safe hands you need to know where you are going, what you are doing, and who is coming. All of this also needs to be communicated clearly to all parties involved. There might be some fantastic opportunities for teachable moments on your next trip or activity. However, it is often these unplanned experiences that can lead to disaster.

Planning ahead means:

  • Making sure you have all of the necessary equipment
  • Checking to make sure the equipment is in good working order
  • If necessary ensuring that you have backup equipment
  • Checking the weather
  • Checking the location
  • Knowing your participants and their skills and abilities
  • Ensuring that everyone comes prepared for the activity
  • Ensuring proper paperwork is filled out
  • Are there accommodations that need to be made for student needs

2. Communicate with Families

Families need to understand what their child is going to be doing and why. You need to communicate the educational value of the activity and exactly what you are going to be doing. You may also need to share your own qualifications and training with families in order for them to feel as if they trust your leadership. This gives families the opportunity to opt-out if they choose. If permission or waiver forms are required you need to get these in advance as well. Ready-to-use permission forms and waivers can be found in our “Get Outside Tool Kit.”

3. Set Expectations and Boundaries for Safety During Outdoor Education

The outdoor setting is less controlled than the classroom setting. As a result, you may need to get clear on planning your classroom management strategies while outside. For example, you need to be very clear on the expectations and boundaries for your activity, as well as the consequences for not following these expectations. These need to be communicated and established before you start the activity. You also need to be firm on your consequences. If things start to get out of control it is much harder to get everyone back into control while outdoors. 

5 kids laying in the leaves outside

4. Know What Gear You and Your Students Will Need

Have all of the gear, clothing, and equipment ready ahead of time. Ensure that you check all of your gear and make sure that it is in working order. Also, know how to set up and use your/ your school’s gear…there is nothing more frustrating than trying to set up a tent that you are unfamiliar with… in the rain. If you are going on a multi-day trip you may even want to have a trial run with your gear.

Also make sure that all of the students have all of the gear that they need ahead of time. Make sure that your students understand exactly what is needed and that they aren’t making substitutions, such as having sandals instead of hiking boots. Posters and checklists for how to dress for the weather are available in our “Get Outside Tool Kit.”

Check out these posts on being prepared with clothing and equipment:

5. Get Backup

In addition to being prepared with your gear, understand who and how many people you will need for supervision. For example, do you need a leader of the opposite gender to come with you? Or do you need adults that know how to canoe? Or maybe you just need an extra set of eyes on a field trip. Make sure you have all of your supervision lined up and confirmed well in advance and that you don’t need to worry supervising them.

6. Understand the Weather

The weather is one of those things that can turn even the best laid plans into a mess. Understand the weather patterns of where you are going and plan accordingly. For example, if you are going on an overnight trip the temperature might drop significantly during the night meaning that your students need to have proper sleeping gear. If you are going on a canoe trip, the wind might pose a challenge for new canoers. Knowing what to expect in advance and being prepared with equipment and a backup plan becomes even more important if there is no opportunity to seek shelter indoors.

two girls playing with an insect net

7. Understand your Location

Along with understanding the weather, comes the necessity for understanding where you are going. Are you prepared with maps and navigation equipment? Do you know of any particular dangers in the area, such as cliffs near a hiking trail or dangerous plants or animals in the area? Check with local authorities, such as park conservation officers or rangers, for any news on current conditions for the areas you might be travelling to. If you are just staying within your own school yard, know where there might be traffic or other safety concerns to be aware of.

8. Know Your Own Skills and Limitations

This may sound like a “no-brainer” but before you take kids out, make sure you know what you are doing. If necessary take courses or get certified in whatever activity you wish to take your kids on. If you are unsure of your own abilities, seek out local experts who may have programs specifically designed for kids. When you are in a leadership position where safety is involved, it is not the time to “learn together” with your kids.

Also, know your own limitations. If you haven’t gone hiking for a long time, don’t take your kids on a 4 hour hike. It will be miserable for everyone.

9. Scaffold the Activity for Safe Growth

If it is your first time doing an activity for your students, make the experience easy and enjoyable. Just like anything else, you need to practice and work your way towards the bigger goal activities. Don’t expect kids that have never canoed to be able to go out for a full day. Work your way up to the bigger trips, it keeps things more attainable and fun for your kids.

10. Keep your Eyes and Ears Open

Keep your eyes and ears open to the well-being of your kids. If you notice kids getting hot, cold, tired, hungry, etc, it might be time to take a break or turn around. It is good to push your kids a little bit, but not to the point where someone can get hurt or sick. Be flexible and open to changes in your plans.

Teacher reading to students outside

Now Get Outside and Get Exploring…‚Äč

Managing safety during outdoor education or outdoor learning doesn’t mean you need to the “fun sucker.” It just means taking a few extra steps to ensure that everyone is able to learn safely. Ensuring the safety of your students or campers will help them to feel comfortable and at ease in what might be a new and scary situation. Your students will feel relaxed and have a much more enjoyable time. Ultimately the goal should be to inspire your students to get outside and explore. They will be more enticed to do that if they know that they can do it safely.

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