Risks and Benefits of Outdoor Learning
Many of the benefits children experience in nature-based education are because children are viewed as capable of taking developmentally appropriate risks. We offer time, space, and permission for children to engage in all kinds of meaningful outdoor learning and adventurous play. There are benefits to both the physical [outdoor] learning environment, as well as nature play, so we address potential risk in both contexts.
Our teachers monitor children at all times, but often without immediately intervening to allow children opportunities to problem-solve when appropriate. Teachers also step to model conflict resolution as children navigate more complex social situations or disagreements. Sometimes teacher support comes in the way of encouragement to help children persevere. Other times, teachers support risk-taking or by posing thoughtful questions when faced with a challenge. (What's your plan with that stick? Is everyone still having fun with this game? What does his face/body seem to be telling you right now? Do you need more space?)
We encourage children to use their voices and respect the voices of others. This is how we being to help children develop an understanding of agency and consent. They have the right to give consent about what they are comfortable playing or doing, and they must also learn to respect the needs of others. The concept of consent is a cornerstone of respect and cooperation, which is vital for social-emotional development and interactions among peers. To this end, values of kindness, compassion, empathy and forgiveness are also prominent in our programs - and it takes time and practice for these values to take root.
Our thoughtful approach to risk includes a comprehensive Emergency Plan paired with risk-benefit assessment (RBA) of activities and experiences we routinely engage in. We also do daily site scans as on-going monitoring of conditions in our changing outdoor learning environment. The following is a snapshot of our risk-benefit assessment that highlights how we embrace and mange risk. Note: Our complete RBA also includes level of risk and actions we take to mitigate each one.
Risk: Injury from fall
Benefits: Children develop confidence, perseverance, and bravery as they take physical and emotional risks to climb. Gross motor skills of hand-eye coordination, balance, spatial awareness, and motor planning are all part of physical skill development. Children learn about the characteristics of trees, bark, leaves, and branching and creatures that inhabit trees through close observation (science inquiry). Children gain a new physical vantage point and perspective of the landscape, too.
Risk: Injury from improper use or carrying
Benefits: Children develop fine and gross motor skills when picking up and carrying sticks. Stick play encourages children to speak and socialize as they invent games and make-believe play. Sticks present problem-solving and construction possibilities involving spatial skills. Children hone math ideas of sorting, counting, measuring, or grouping in sets. Visual discrimination is used to find a particular kind of stick. Observation of branching patterns is a math concept that helps with tree ID. Sorting sticks by size is also important for fire-making. Sticks can be used as writing, painting, and drawing implements helpful with literacy development. Sticks are excellent in cooperative passing games. Sticks can be used to make a beat for the basis of music and song.
Tool use (general)
Risk: Injury from improper or unsupervised use
Benefits: Children develop sense of accomplishment and self-sufficiency as they learn to use various tools (EX. mallet, shovel, screw driver, saw, potato peeler, etc.) Fine motor skills are furthered by careful use of tools. The challenge of using tools is rewarded through sense of pride and confidence. Children regulate their emotions and learn to slow down as they follow directions, slow down, and concentrate on proper tool use. Group building projects using tools instill collaboration and teamwork.
Risk: Walking on/exploring uneven ground can cause children to trip or fall
Benefits: Gross motor development (locomotor skills), balance, and motor planning is enhanced by walking and climbing on uneven terrain. Children develop physical endurance on trail walks and experience the features of our local landscape as they develop an appreciation for our natural community.
Risk: Illness or allergic reaction from incorrect plant identification
Benefits: Children hone observation skills and identify plants by leaf, flower, color, size, bark, scent, etc. (science inquiry). Children develop understanding of conditions and needs of specific plants and where to find them. Children describe traits of plants and other animals that rely on them for food and shelter. Children become familiar with harmful plants and how to avoid them (EX. poison ivy). Children come to understand our essential connection to plants as nourishing food and medicine.
Risk: Injury from burn
Benefits: Children discover ways people use fire for light and heat. They experience changing states of matter. Children learn how fire can be used for cooking healthy food and drinks such as roasted pears and mint tea. Children discriminate between kinds of branches when gathering firewood. Children help construct different kinds of fires used for different purposes. Children follow directions and exhibit caution around fires, regulating their bodies and emotions to participate in campfire activities. Children develop respect for the power of nature. Children feel camaraderie and unity as a member of our campfire circle. Children listen to and express ideas or stories around the fire. Children use charcoal remains for drawing and painting. Fire is a crucial element that has advanced human existence; under the close supervision of adults, children experience this direct connection to the natural world.
Encounters with animals (general)
Risk: Injury from pinches, bites, or stings
Benefits: Children grow empathy, love, and appreciation for all living things. Children come to understand that every creature has a role to play in our natural community. Children demonstrate fine motor skills as they hold or touch small invertebrates such as worms or beetles. Children form knowledge about different life cycles of various animals from birth to death. Children demonstrate care and compassion. Children learn to identify animals native to their community. Children imitate the actions, sounds, and other behaviors of animals through imaginative play. Children reflect on interactions with animals through storytelling, writing, drawing, dramatic play, games, song, and creative movement. Children become more aware and mindful of the needs of other living things and ways they can act to protect them.