Understanding Winter Outdoor Education Safety

Winter has arrived and it’s time to get outside and enjoy the beautiful snowy landscape. Winter shouldn’t be a time for hibernation but a time for exploring and playing in the snow. There are so many opportunities for learning and adventure in the winter. Many people choose to stay indoors during the winter months, opting instead for activities such as watching TV and binging on netflix. However, at school, we can bring our students outdoors and share with them the beauty and excitement that the colder weather has to offer. Outdoor exploration during the winter months is totally doable, we just need to take a few steps to be prepared for safety during outdoor education in the winter. 

As teachers, we have seen firsthand how lots of time spent indoors can make both students and teachers a bit stir-crazy. Any teacher who has experienced an entire week of indoor recesses can attest to the fact that things start to get a bit crazy toward Friday. Children need fresh air and opportunities to move. If students are dressed for the colder weather and prepared for outdoor education, then spending time outdoors, even on cold days, becomes a part of the day that the students look forward to. After all, “There’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing”

3 kids jumping in the snow wearing outdoor clothing

Teacher Tips for Safety During Outdoor Education in the Winter​

Preparing yourself as a teacher for outdoor education during cold weather should be your first priority. As a teacher, you are a role model for your students. Your students see what you are doing and how you respond to the weather. If you have a bad attitude towards the weather, the students will pick up on that. They also notice how you dress and prepare for the weather and follow accordingly. Most importantly, if you are dressed for warmth and prepared for the weather you will enjoy your time outdoors so much more. 

1. Be dressed properly for the weather. 

Your first priority in ensuring safety during outdoor education in the winter is being dressed for the weather. Being dressed properly for the winter weather ensures that you are comfortable and can enjoy outdoor education with your students. Dress in layers and wear proper footwear for the weather and conditions. Over the years I have collected an assortment of gear for all types of weather conditions. I love checking out outdoor consignment stores and seeing what I can find. If you are new to outdoor education or just prefer to save money/the environment, thrift stores and consignment stores are the way to go. 

2. Know the weather conditions.

Depending on your location, there may be weather conditions that are dangerous. Where I teach wind and snow can appear out of nowhere and if you are far away from the school or shelter this can be dangerous. There are also times when it is just not safe to go outside. For example, in January and February, the temperature can drop to minus 40 or below. When it is that cold our school buses don’t run and we make alternate plans to stay indoors.

As a teacher, you need to understand how “wind chill” works and understand how that can affect the temperature and your student’s safety. Check the local weather forecast, especially if you plan on heading far away from shelter or your school. If it looks like it might get windy or that the temperature might drop be flexible and be ready to change your plans. 

3. Know basic cold weather first aid.

As an outdoor teacher, or even just a teacher in general, having a basic first aid course under your belt should be a necessity. You never know what kind of injuries might occur during a school day and you need to be prepared to deal with them. Two major concerns during outdoor education during cold weather are:

  • Frost Bite: Frost bite is when your skin and tissue freezes due to being exposed to the cold. Wind chill and cold temperatures can be especially dangerous if your students are not dressed properly for the weather. Information on frost bite and how to treat it is available from WebMD.
  • Hypothermia: Hypothermia is when a persons body temperature drops below its regular temperature. Hypothermia is caused by prolonged exposure to the cold or being wet while being outdoors. Information on how to treat hypothermia is available from WebMD.
two children running in the snow wearing winter gear

Student Tips for Safety During Outdoor Education in the Winter

One of the biggest challenges for safety during outdoor education in the winter is ensuring that your students come dressed for the winter weather. Your students will enjoy themselves more during outdoor education in the winter if they are dressed and ready to be outside in the cold and snow. Nothing makes an outdoor afternoon drag on like cold fingers and toes. If outdoor learning is a part of your daily routine, your students may be already prepared to be outdoors. However, if outdoor learning is something new you will have to prepare your students by teaching them how to be safe during the winter.

1. Teach them how to dress properly for the weather.

Set the expectation that your students will come prepared for outdoor learning. At first you may need to teach your students what dressing for the weather looks like. You may teach the students through formal lessons, videos, or simply through discussions about the weather. Here is what I do to prepare my students for dressing for the weather. 

It is also important to inform parents that the students will be outdoors and ensure that they understand what dressing for the weather looks like. If you are in a situation where families may not be able to afford appropriate clothing for the weather I have discussed a few options in this post. 

2. Teach your students how to recognize frostbite and hypothermia.

Teach your students about how to recognize both frostbite and hypothermia in themselves as well as others. Give them clear instructions to let an adult know if they are experiencing or notice any of  the following symptoms:

  • reddish patches of skin, especially if there are white spots 
  • burning sensation on the skin
  • uncontrolled shivering (in severe cases shivering may stop)
  • confusion/disorientation

If you feel confident in your first aid skills you can also teach your students basic first aid and how to treat both hypothermia and frostbite. However, the most important part of treatment is letting an adult know so that they can get the help that they need.

3. Give your students enough time to prepare.

If outdoor learning isn’t a regular part of your day, give your students and their families enough time to prepare. Sending home a letter/email prior to your outdoor activity can be beneficial and help to ensure that everyone comes dressed for the weather. Family letters, dressing for the weather posters, and checklists can be found in our Get Outside Tool Kit.

4. Have your students bring extra clothing. 

If you are in a more wet climate with wet snow or winter rain, have your students bring extra socks and mitts. This way they can have a dry pair for recess or walking home. Additionally, if you are doing an extended activity outdoors students can change once their mitts and socks get wet to keep themselves dry and comfortable. You may even want your students to have a dry change of clothes if you will be doing indoor learning later in the day.

three kids laying in the snow

Some Other Considerations For Safety During Outdoor Education In the Winter​

1. Provide lots of opportunities for your students to move around.

Giving your students time to move around allows them to get their blood circulating and warm up their bodies a bit. When students are sitting for prolonged periods of time while in the cold they can get chilled and have difficulty warming up. Instead regularly plan activities, such as walking or playing a short game, that allow students to move around and stay warm. Here are some ways to add some physical activity to your outdoor classes.

With that said, don’t plan an overly strenuous activity and then a sit-down lesson. If students are running, snowshoeing, or cross-country skiing they may work up a sweat. This sweat can lead students to catch a chill if students are asked to stay outdoors without having a chance to warm up and remove their damp clothing. 

2. Have a backup plan.

Know how to understand the weather conditions in your area. If things are exceptionally cold or if students do not appear to be prepared for the weather conditions of that day, have a backup plan. If you like, you can turn the missed outdoor education time into a learning opportunity where you teach your students about understanding the weather conditions and safety. 

3. Know your area

Regularly surveying your area for hazards and performing a site assessment should be a part of your risk management strategy. Take some time to understand your area and know where there might be safety concerns. For example, icy patches (especially after a light snow) can make running games dangerous as your children could slip. Other safety concerns might be:

  • ice hanging from overhangs/tree branches
  • open water
  • ice that is not thick enough to hold a student’s weight
  • deep snow drifts
  • open spaces with no shelter

If any of these are present you don’t need to discontinue your outdoor learning. Instead, you can either teach your students about being safe around these things or set up your learning area away from these hazards. 

4. Have a warm-up space/ shelter.

Have a space for your students to come and warm up when needed. This may be an indoor classroom or a sheltered space outdoors. Many forest schools often have a campfire that students can warm up at. Since this is probably not allowed at most public schools the next best thing is to have a designated space where students can come inside and warm themselves up. 

5. Have a transition time

If you are transitioning from outdoor learning to indoor learning you will need to give your students a bit of time to undress from the winter clothes and warm up. You may wish to have a low-key activity for your students to do while they warm up, such as colouring or journaling. Trying to dive right into the next learning task might pose some challenges as the students are not warm and ready to learn yet. 

Two kids walking in the snow in a forest

Now Get Outside and Enjoy the Snow!

With children spending so much time indoors during the winter, it is important for us as teachers to encourage them to get outdoors and get moving. We can help create a mindset where students enjoy being outdoors, even in the winter. Even if you don’t consider yourself to be an outdoorsy teacher, you can still take your students outside for short periods of time during the winter. Find active and engaging ways to get your students outdoors and get them moving. Most of all take the time to be prepared for safety during outdoor education in the winter so that your students can enjoy their outdoor learning experience and want to get outside more on their own. 

Here are some fun winter activities to help you get outside with your students:

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