Wednesday, 23 April 2014

How to reduce risk when teaching outdoors

Intrepid, excitable students, mud, nettles, bugs, rivers, dogs and trees so tall you just have to climb them can sound like a scary combination. 

In fact, the risks involved with teaching your students in the wild woodlands can sound so scary, you could be tempted to lock the classroom windows, close the blinds and stay inside where it's safe and you can't get sued by angry parents...

Of course, taking a group of students outside will always involve a certain degree of 'risk'. But assessing these risks beforehand and taking action to avoid them can put your mind at ease and contribute to a healthier, happier experience for students.

The table below outlines some of the more common risks associated with the outdoors - but it's not comprehensive. You should definitely assess your own outdoor sites in accordance with your school's risk assessment procedures and apply risk levels.

But don't wrap your students up in cotton wool! Kids need to encounter some form of risk in order to develop the important problem-solving skills they'll need when they encounter risks later on in life.

Hazard                                     Action

Sharp or prickly materials
Encourage long sleeves and sturdy footwear (not sandals) and discourage wearing shorts. Carry a First Aid kit.

Poisonous berries/fungi

Give verbal warnings not to eat anything or put things/fingers in their mouths. Seek medical assistance if ingested. Wash hands carefully after the trip (especially before eating or drinking) or carry wet-wipes or antibacterial gel.

Low branches

Give verbal warnings to take care (especially of eyes).

Uneven ground, holes, slopes, fallen branches

Advise to walk carefully. Wear suitable footwear and plan a route appropriate to the weather.

Children going out of sight/missing

Advise children on boundaries and give verbal warnings. Adults to keep visual contact with their group.  Make sure you have the correct ratio of adults: students.
Have an agreed ‘missing person’ procedure that everyone is aware of, including an agreed meeting point in emergency situations.

General public

Avoid contact with strangers and animals where possible. Ask owners to control their animals if passing.

Insect bites/stings or allergies

Be aware of children with allergies (such as nuts, insect stings, hay fever). Check anyone with severe allergies has their asthma pump or EpiPen, and they are able to administer it. Remind everyone of the risk. Carry a First Aid kit.

Dangerous Litter (for example, fly-tipped waste, broken glass, syringes and so on)

Conduct safety sweep of area before activity takes place. Remind people of dangers and if appropriate, show an example.

Disease or infection– for example, Toxicara canis (from dog faeces), Leptospirosis (from rat urine in water), Tetanus (from soil), or Lyme Disease (from ticks)

Cover broken skin on hands (for example wear gloves or use plasters), advise of risks and symptoms, and seek medical advice as soon as possible if infection is suspected.
Tuck socks into trousers if in potential tick area.

Sun/ultra-violet radiation

Advise of risks. Cover exposed skin, especially top of the head, back of the neck and shoulders. Work in the shade where possible.

Slippery surfaces

Warn about mud or ice. Change activity or route according to the weather. Wear appropriate footwear.

Electrical storms or gale force winds

Check weather websites for the latest information and severe weather warnings. Cancel activity if too severe.

Open water


Give a verbal warning of danger area. Advise to keep clear of water’s edge and banks.
Have a throw line handy if working near deep or fast flowing water.

Look out for the next blog post in this series, which will offer a number of inventive ways to engage students with the natural world, this spring and beyond.

< Read the previous post in the series                       Read the next post in this series>

The material in this series of blog posts is taken from the article 'A practical guide to outdoor learning' by Amy Williams of The Woodland Trust. 

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