It’s true: participating in an outdoor ed program is not risk-free. With a few simple precautions in place, however, spending time in nature can be made infinitely more safe, not to mention tremendously beneficial.
Safety Concern #1: Wild Animals
The antidote: Get to know the local fauna and find out exactly what the risks are. In most cases, wild animals are terrified of humans and will naturally keep their distance. However, they might occasionally wander into your home base (this is their home, after all), so it’s good to know what to do if that happens. Protocol varies by animal, so consult your area’s park service to find out best practices. For example, with some animals it’s recommended to make lots of noise and throw things in their direction to scare them off, but with other animals it’s best to be perfectly still and quiet. Once you have mastered the rules, teach them to your students and practice with fun games or drills.
Safety Concern #2: Poisonous Plants
The antidote: Again, education is the key here. Teach yourself how to identify poisonous or otherwise harmful plants (poison oak and poison ivy are some of the most common and pervasive), and then teach your students. Rhymes such as “leaves of three, let them be” can be helpful for young children. Also teach students to never pick or eat a plant without first asking an adult. When in doubt, do not touch a plant.
Safety Concern #3: Risk of Injury
The antidote: Help parents understand the mantra No risk, no reward. The benefits of playing in nature –especially the kind of play that is inherently risky like climbing trees– are stupendous. Spending time in natural playscapes has a “positive effect on children’s social development, motor skill development, attention, and activity level,” according to Ashley Parsons at Virginia Polytechnic Institute. Risky play also provides kids authentic practice with the crucial skills of risk assessment and management. You can read more about the benefits of risky play here, here, and here.
Safety Concern #4: Stranger Danger
The antidote: Maintain an appropriate adult:child ratio at all times. Exact number will vary by age and school, but I suggest a 1:5 or 1:6 ratio. Provide clear physical boundaries and safety guidelines for students from the get-go. Create a Safety Zone and then walk the perimeter of it with all your students. Teach them that they must always be able to see an adult, and an adult must always be able to see them. Remind students to never talk to or go with an adult they don’t know.