Finding balance between outdoor safety and adventure in preschool

by Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. on January 5, 2012

in Bam Radio Series on Early Childhood Education, Play Ground Safety

Behind my preschool we have a beautiful set of woods with a few trails that the children love to explore and hike. The trails have been there long before I started this preschool and along the trails are birds, squirrels, trees, tree stumps, rocks, fallen down logs, acorns, pine cones, and other items left there by mother nature.  Just as we all do in early childhood education, I have to consider and evaluate the issue of safety when my students head out to these woods for their exploration and hiking…

At one point along the wooded trail is a big hill. The hill veers off of the trail and my first thought when seeing this hill is that my students should not be going down this hill.  My assistant, on the other hand, never gave it a second thought.  “Can we go down the slide?” the students ask referring to the steep hill covered with leaves.   “Sure! Go for it, ” my young assistant enthusiastically replies…

Now had my assistant worked for someone else, besides me, and had she been given the latest “official training in outdoor playscape safety,” she might have had a different response to their question…

She would have first realized that there is risk involved in letting the children go down that steep hill. Someone might slip, fall, or in someway get hurt.  But my assistant and the children simply saw the steep hill as a fun adventure so down the hill they all went…

She would have also realized that she first needed to cover the bottom of the hill with some sort of mulch or other material – so many inches thick and so many inches wide – so there would be an appropriate and safe landing area at the bottom of the hill/slide.  But my assistant and the children only saw the adventure and so off they went down the hill…

She would also have known that the dirt on this hill and at the bottom of this hill is not sanitized.  There are animals that live in these woods and touching the dirt will make the children’s hands… well… dirty!  But down the hill and then back up the hill all the children went…

Had my assistant been better informed, she would have probably not let these children go down that hill the first time – yet alone turn around and go down it a second time!!

Instead, my assistant would have most likely told they kids that the hill was not safe and that they were not big enough to go down it…

They would not have had this unique opportunity to work together helping each other climb up and down the hill…

They would not have enthusiastically embraced this challenge with their whole body as they used their arms and legs to climb back up the hill and their sense of balance to go down the hill…

They would have instead accepted the idea that they are not capable of climbing up and down this hill or that adventure like this is too risky or unsafe.  Hmmmm, I am not so sure I want that to be the message my students come away with.  So we went up and down that hill!

This is not to say that safety isn’t important or to even make light of rules for safety – we do want our children to have safe experiences.  But it is to say that safety measures should be set in place in such a way that they foster opportunities for challenge, adventure, and exploration not remove these qualities from the early childhood outdoor experience.

I worry that too often, a concern and “over-emphasis” on outdoor safety actually removes quality experiences and a chance to explore the natural environment from today’s early childhood classroom.

Bam Radio discussion on playground safety

I recently participated in a discussion on Bam Radio titled, “Playing it Safe, Too Safe?”  also found on the list of Bam radio broadcasts here….

Rae Pica with Robin Moore, Thelma Harms, and Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed.

Take a minute to listen to the radio broadcast so you can consider your own thoughts on playground safety as well as listen to what the experts have to say.

What NAEYC had to say…

Safety and outdoor adventure do not seem to be two ideas that go hand in hand but folks are starting to realize that natural outdoor environments can lead to wonderful learning opportunities inside the classroom.

In a recent article in the October/November 2011 edition of NAEYC’s Teach Young Children magazine (TYC), there is an article titled, “Exploring Trees” by Ellen Hall, Desarie Kennedy, Alison Mayer, and Lisa Stevens.

The article discusses how to take an outdoor experience, such as I have described above, and then invite your students to explore the experience through other mediums in the classroom.  In order for children to want to explore their natural environment inside the classroom, they must first be given opportunity to explore their natural environment in a meaningful way.

In the TYC article, the children took an excursion to a local park to find a child’s “special tree” and from this excursion, the children were able to extend their experiences in all kinds of directions in the classroom. The article says, “The children climbed  the trunk almost as if it were a rite of passage or an entrance into another world. They discovered how the tree made them feel – joyful, brave, strong, safe” (TYC, Nov/Dec, 2011, pg. 13).

Links to Grow On

The Benefits of Climbing on Trees by Dinosaurs and Octopuses

Visit these wonderful blogs to learn more on outdoor play environments and learning opportunities…

I’m A Teacher, Get Me Outside Here

Go Explore Nature

Exploring the Outdoor Classroom

Playscapes

Getting Outside

Linking up to…

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1 Jill @ a mom with a lesson plan January 5, 2012 at 8:20 am

My son started running so early (7 months) that I had to give up on the idea that I could protect him from getting hurt. What a wonderful “training” that was for me! Sure he’s gotten hurt a time or two, but he’s also learned very important playing skills. He knows how to fall (which is the main reason he rarely hurts himself), he knows his body and his abilities which keeps him brave when he tries out new experiences (another reason he rarely hurts himself.. I think fear makes it easier to really get hurt).

I think my daughter has benefited the most, had she come first I may not have “let” her have most of the adventures she has had… and that would have been REALLY sad.

Thanks for the article!

2 Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. January 5, 2012 at 8:55 pm

You make a good point Jill. Often times, we do “protect” little girls from adventure so they won’t get hurt. I think it is wonderful that your son has paved the way for both your children to have so many outdoor adventures:) Kiss those booboos for me!

3 Carrie January 5, 2012 at 8:23 am

This is such a big topic… on the news last night was a story about how children aren’t getting enough outdoor time in day cares due to both safety concerns and increasing parent emphasis on “learning”. You can only sanitize a space, both indoor and outdoor so much for children, they have to experience it too.

4 Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. January 5, 2012 at 8:56 pm

I agree – let’s put experiencing our environment at the top of the list!!

5 Carrie January 7, 2012 at 11:24 pm
6 Cathy@pre-schoolplay January 5, 2012 at 9:55 am

I chuckled to myself as I read your post, but you are so right, these are the things influencing our practice and the experiences we give to children when we go outside. Not only that but I find that sometimes I am so worried about having to explain to a parent that a child has hurt themselves that I find myself saying to them ‘be careful you might fall etc’ which is doing nothing to boost their confidence or belief in their own abilities.

7 Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. January 5, 2012 at 8:59 pm

It is hard to explain to a parent when a child gets hurt – even a scratch now a days can put childcare givers in some tough spots with some parents. How to find balance is really important.

I think we do need to watch what we say to children in our efforts to keep them safe. We have to find a way to boost their confidence in the process! Love your comment:)

8 Amber January 5, 2012 at 10:23 am

AMEN! :-D

9 Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. January 5, 2012 at 8:59 pm

:)

10 Andrea January 5, 2012 at 10:44 am

I have no idea why but your story brought tears of joy to my eyes. The simple idea that you let children be children is heart warming. Children need to fall down or fail so they can learn that it is okay and the that it is not the end of the world. Through these experiences they learn so much more than we realize, Thanks so much for your wonderful blog.

11 Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. January 5, 2012 at 8:59 pm

Thank you Andrea! I love your sweet spirit – makes me smile:)

12 Michael Job January 5, 2012 at 11:04 am

Hi, I am a “Certified Playground Safety Inspector” and have designed and built playgrounds at child care facilities for 12 years. I can understand the frustration expressed so clearly in this article. I am quite familiar with the expense and effort required to keep your playground compliant with current guidelines for safety surfacing and avoiding identifiable hazards of every description. Having supervised construction of over 400 C.PS.C. compliant play areas, I am convinced that these efforts have not been in vain and that any number of serious injuries have been prevented as a result.
There are no rules or guidelines that apply to a healthy and fascinating walk in the woods other than the ones you impose on yourself in your own wisdom. Safety surfacing guidelines only apply to areas with man made structures intended for climbing which can create a situation where a child can fall and hurt themselves. Precautions to prevent a child’s exposure to animal waste apply to a sandbox that was put in the playground and filled with material (by the owner) attractive to animals as well as children. A hill is not a slide. You can have the kids run down it all you want if you feel it is relatively safe.
Those in the playground industry who have created, and who apply safety guidelines have done so because serious injuries, including deaths, occurred on playgrounds with some frequency.. too much so. Now we have some tools which are clearly effective at reducing those injuries. They apply to any public playground area, which is typically defined as a collection of climbers, slides, swings and the like, usually surrounded by a fence and hopefully wrapped in sufficient impact attenuating safety surfacing to prevent a child who may fall from a broken bone, a brain injury or worse… when they come there to play.
Nowhere in any guideline I am aware of does it say, “Don’t go for a walk in the woods on a sunny day.” or, “Don’t run down a hill”. These pictures are wonderful. Go, run down a hill! You can’t prevent a scrape or two. Carry some band-aids. But inside that fenced in play area, where you have your playground equipment, make sure you know the C.P.S.C. guidelines and strive for compliance with them as a minimum measure to prevent injuries that don’t have to happen.
If you have any questions about the guidelines, compliance issues or how to minimize the cost, I would be happy to help.
michael@kidsafeplaygrounds.com

13 Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. January 5, 2012 at 9:06 pm

Thanks for bringing in your perspective Michael. In the Bam Radio interview, it was mentioned that trees should also have a safety surfacing and implied that dirt should be sanitized (but then mentioned that children should wash their hands after playing with the dirt – which I agree with:) . I am not frustrated with efforts to make sure children are kept safe but I do feel that folks are so focused on meeting safety standards that they have become scared of giving children real opportunities to take any type of risk at all. I also think that safety standards have made “man-made” playgrounds so costly that folks tend to squelch on equipment. So I see lots of very boring but safe playgrounds inside those childcare fences.

I wish there was a way to promote safety and yet keep costs down and a focus on creating an amazing and adventurous outdoor environment up! Not asking for much am I? :)

14 Kristine Binderup January 5, 2012 at 12:05 pm

I grew up in the woods, my dad was a carpenter so before I started Head Start I spent many days exploring the woods and “wild” areas around the Mendocino County where my dad was on work sites. My love of and understanding of nature runs deep and is fulfilling.
As a Preschool teacher I love to take the children on “nature” walks, I think they benefit greatly from the experience. I also think that we worry too much as parents and as educators about children getting hurt. Obviously we don’t want to put children in harms way, but scraping a knee or getting bruises allows children the opportunity to build faith in their bodies ability to heal. I have many friends who have had broken limbs and not one of those stories that they tell from the adventure of it is told without a smile. The benefit far outweighs the risks, children and nature go hand in hand, running on uneven ground, dodging trees and helping one another builds balance, body awareness and cooperation to name a few benefits.
Thank you for this wonderful post.
Kristine Binderup M. Ed

15 Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. January 5, 2012 at 9:08 pm

Yes Kristine – the benefits are enormous. When the weather permits, my students would rather be outdoors and on our trails than doing anything else I have to offer. And I offer lots of fun stuff:)

16 Robin Blue January 5, 2012 at 2:07 pm

Yes! Thank you for this post. Over cautious adults are (with good intentions) robbing our children of important learning experiences.
This article titled, “Can a Playground Be Too Safe?” was published in NYTimes last year, very interesting!
http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/19/science/19tierney.html?_r=1&ref=johntierney

17 Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. January 5, 2012 at 9:08 pm

Thank you for sharing that article Robin – I love having additional sources to read.

18 Aunt Annie's Childcare January 5, 2012 at 3:44 pm

Well, good on your assistant for having that uncommon attribute- common sense. That slope did not have metal spikes and a concrete slab at the bottom! I get so impatient with the cotton wool society that’s crippling our children’s ability to assess risk in later years. A grazed knee or a bruise is no reason to forbid physical activity. Research has shown that forbidding activities like the one described here can lead to anxious children who can’t distinguish between major and minor dangers- not to mention the death of exhilaration. Down with the fun police!!

19 Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. January 5, 2012 at 9:10 pm

Oh heaven’s no! There were no spikes or slabs:) Haha on the last sentence in your comment:) Too funny!

20 Carey January 5, 2012 at 3:59 pm

Oh, how I love this article!!!

21 Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. January 5, 2012 at 9:18 pm

Thank you Carey:)

22 Mama Pea Pod January 5, 2012 at 5:32 pm

Absolutely! Thank you for sharing this voice of reason!

23 Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. January 5, 2012 at 9:10 pm

You are welcome;)

24 Karen Green January 5, 2012 at 6:43 pm

Great post Deborah! A memory making experience!

25 Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. January 5, 2012 at 9:19 pm

It is interesting how outdoor experiences really create lasting memories. I remember the smells, the temperature, the way I felt as a child being outdoors much more than anything I did inside the classroom.

26 Karen January 5, 2012 at 8:12 pm

Great post! Yes, I keep telling parents I work with their children on “appropriate risk taking.” I have a little fellow who was really afraid of his shadow in August who showed me yesterday how he could climb on a pallet that was leaning (sort of precariously!) against a tree trunk. I think he has finally begin to understand that “falling” is not necessarily not a reason to do an activity – as long as he won’t fall too far. Falling from a low tree stump (for example) is okay, but falling from a tall tree isn’t. : )

27 Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. January 5, 2012 at 9:11 pm

What a great story to tell Karen. I love seeing children overcome their fears then proudly show us what they CAN do!! Hurrah for your little guy!

28 Leeanne A January 5, 2012 at 8:54 pm

Bravo! I think of my childhood and the many, many hours I simply waundered in the woods – climb the trees – walked through the creek – some kids will never experience that! What a shame!

29 Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. January 5, 2012 at 9:13 pm

It is a shame for sure. It is hard when folks live in communities where woods and adventure like this just isn’t so accessible. I remember doing all the things you described as a child too! I had the slight chance to move my school to a nicer building this year but we would have to give up our woods and settle for a very small playground. I just couldn’t do that!

30 Deb @ Living Montessori Now January 5, 2012 at 9:00 pm

Awesome post, Deborah! LOVE it when children have wonderful experiences and create happy memories outdoors. Safety needs limits, too! :)

31 Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. January 5, 2012 at 9:14 pm

Thanks for stopping by Debbie:)

32 Mariah Burton Nelson January 5, 2012 at 9:35 pm

Gosh, these photos (and you) tell such an inspiring story! Thanks so much, Deborah, for sharing your wisdom here and in our online community. Obviously you’ve hit a nerve – which is not the same as causing injury! :-)

Mariah Burton Nelson, Center Director, Head Start Body Start

33 Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. January 5, 2012 at 9:40 pm

I love this comment:) I don’t like to cause injury!!

34 Joyce @Dinosaurs And Octopuses January 5, 2012 at 10:30 pm

This a fantastic post and a great reminder! I find myself begin to tell my son “no” out of fear for safety more than I should. I still have to remind myself that some things *should* be explored and the small “risks” associated with them are in fact, tiny and worth it. I remind myself that my son is capable and will only grow to be more capable. Obviously there is limits, but you are so right.. you need to find the balance! Thanks so much for linking to my post about the benefits of climbing trees. I’m honored that you included it in such a wonderful article. Thank you!

35 Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. January 5, 2012 at 11:29 pm

I think we all have natural worries for our children and our students. This is why a good balance between safety and adventure is important and healthy for kids :) I loved your post and was so excited at how timely it was for this one!

36 Cerys @ Rainy Day Mum January 6, 2012 at 3:43 am

What a great post – I love the outdoors and in a previous existence I worked in the Costa Rican jungle and part of my role out there was environmental education and risk assessment. We had a policy that any teacher could view when they visited however what really happened was very different I don’t think I could have stopped the students touching turtles if I had tried (risk of samonella), walking in the dark with no flashlights under the light of the stars and getting wet as the sea comes up further than expected and getting bitten by various bugs and creepy crawlies. We explore outside often but I find my husband that hasn’t had a similar upbrining (my dad was an outdoor activity teacher) and life experiences is reluctant to let my children do anything that he deems dangerous – Running down hills when he’s around is not allowed!

In this day and age I do think that health and safety has gone a little too far and many children are missing out on valuable opportunities as teachers stick to the rules and don’t assess the situations on that moment.

37 Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. January 6, 2012 at 9:34 am

Oh wow – what a wonderful experience to have been in the jungle. It is interesting how our own experiences in the outdoors impacts our choices and concerns over what experiences we allow our children to have!

38 Greg January 6, 2012 at 7:34 am

A great adventure you shared there. I would argue that your assistant may still have made that same decision if she was better informed. It’s all a matter of where she gathers her information from. If it is from balanced origins, or even from sources pro risk taking, like many of us, then her response to the children might not have been very different.

The reason many of us blog – to share information and ideas so that others may be more balanced in their approach, being enriched with a variety of perspectives.

Thanks for sharing,
Greg

39 Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. January 6, 2012 at 9:35 am

You are right Greg – she most likely would have still let the children explore the hill. Training, if balanced with encouragement to use good common sense, can lead to great early childhood teaching and kid experiences!

40 Little Wonders' Days January 6, 2012 at 5:45 pm

Ok, so you forgot one “danger”…I had my kids running in the woods at my in laws this afternoon and my FIL was worried about them stepping in deer scat, lol! I’m all for safety, but within reason. Look at the leading causes of injuries in children and make sure you’ve covered your basis…motor vehicle crashes, falls, burns, poisonings, drownings, etc.

41 Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. January 6, 2012 at 9:24 pm

Haha – I can’t believe I forgot that one! I better make sure my assistant knows to watch for deer poop!

42 Teacher Tom January 6, 2012 at 7:29 pm

Rock on, my sister!

43 Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. January 6, 2012 at 9:14 pm

Now that is a wonderful compliment Tom:) Love it and love you!

44 Wanda Rupright January 6, 2012 at 8:22 pm

Excellent article. Love it. I know we want our kids to be safe, but they have to learn and explore. It’s the purpose of childhood! One of my favorite memories of childhood was a steep hill at Girl Scout Camp. THAT hill had a creek at the bottom (a very shallow narrow creek). Going down the hill, (after many years of girls before you) was a right of passage. Not falling in the creek was the challenge. I still remember the year that I was by now a leader..and years of erosion; helped by many girl bottoms for many years; finally deemed the hill “too steep” and we had to begin telling the girls they were not allowed to go down the hill. Our favorite scare story- an old dead tree in the middle of the campgrounds that appeared to have a face and arms (Gitchgoomee)…was told to haunt the campgrounds at night in search of girls out of their tents, especially one’s that did not have a buddy!..Poor Gitchegoomee crumbled and fell over about the same time as the hill became too steep. That camp never held the same excitement again. Safety yes, but not at the cost of childhood.

45 Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. January 6, 2012 at 9:14 pm

Awwe – wonderful memories! Again these are the kind of experiences that really stay with us. My brothers and I used to have a creek that we played in for hours – also shallow. Well – they played in it and I sat on the edge and watched:)

46 Laura January 6, 2012 at 9:22 pm

Nice article. I once witnessed some parents telling 10 yr old kids they couldn’t run down a hill because it was too dangerous. It disturbed me.

47 Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. January 6, 2012 at 9:31 pm

Sometimes, I will see parents or teachers tell kids not to “run down hills because it is dangerous” because it is easier than arguing about running down the hill:) Letting children have adventure is more work for adults so I think sometimes safety is also an excuse for not encouraging the adventure. Just my opinion:)

48 Kierna January 7, 2012 at 6:46 am

Thanks for linking up this week – I have left a comment in the preschool blogger page so won’t repeat myself!

49 Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. January 7, 2012 at 11:20 am

Thank you Kierna – I will check the blogger group:)

50 Tim Gill January 9, 2012 at 5:18 am

A beautiful illustration of a crucial idea in learning and child safety: if we want to give children rich, challenging learning experiences, we cannot solely focus on risks. Here in the UK, this idea is spreading. The approach, called risk-benefit assessment, is a game-changing move. It has been promoted within the outdoor play sector for some years, and is also being taken up by many working in early education and adventure activities. I describe the idea, its history and how it works in more detail in a blog post of mine from last year. How do we help adults to grasp the heart of the idea? That’s easy: get them to talk about their favourite places to play when they were young!

51 Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. January 10, 2012 at 4:20 pm

You are so right Tim – the best way to get adults thinking is to have them talk about their favorite places to play as children and now. We all love the outdoors and yet it is so interesting how we drag our feet when it comes to giving children today the same experiences we loved (and survived)!

52 Kristin January 9, 2012 at 10:04 pm

Deborah,
This is a wonderful article and I appreciate your candor when it comes to safety. We have a motto that we try to follow – “as safe as necessary, not as safe as possible.” Allowing children to experience certain risks has been proven to increase confidence, stimulate gross motor functions, AND, believe it or not, it helps children stay safer because they have experience in negotiating risks and are able to calculate their bodies more carefully.
Oh, and thanks for the mention! I love how we can all work together to get children OUTSIDE! ;-)
PS- If you haven’t read Last Child In the Woods by Richard Louv, it is a worthwhile read. Of course, from our perspective he is preachin’ to the choir, but the messages he sends out are well worth absorbing so that we as teachers can have some “formal” research to quote and share!

53 Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. January 10, 2012 at 4:16 pm

I haven’t read that Kristin! I will have to check it out. Love, love, love this: “as safe as necessary, not as safe as possible.”

54 Kari January 10, 2012 at 12:52 pm

What a wonderful post about a important topic. Such a great way to tell a story.

55 Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. January 10, 2012 at 4:15 pm

Thank you Kari:)

56 Lindsey January 10, 2012 at 3:55 pm

This is a great post, it’s ok to fall down every now and then, gives you a chance to pick yourself up again and keep going. The natural world is a great place to learn this concept, starting them young is even better!!

57 Bri March 25, 2012 at 11:26 pm

Thank you for sharing this. I believe that there is so much to learn outdoors and the children will learn to pick themselves up when they fall and try again. Build their confidence when they try and try again and finally succeed. I also don’t want my preschool children to learn the wrong message. Like many centers we have rules about when we go outside (below 0 windchill, or over 100 or raining….) we stay inside. I try not to phrase it by saying you can’t play outside because it’s raining, because then when they go home, they’ll remember what we said and stay in. But when they’re at home (hopefully) they can play outside and explore the water flowing down little cracks and experiment with building up your own dams or making a boat. Those are some of my fondest memories. You just need to be safe about it. Can you play outside when it’s -0 out….well, yes…do you want to for a long extended time. No. but telling kids to be afraid of nature and outside, doesn’t allow them to learn to appreciate nature and the things around them. And if they don’t learn that when they’re young, they won’t have an appreciation for mother earth when they’re older. Thank you again and I would also recommend Last Child in the Woods. Excellent read.

58 Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. March 25, 2012 at 11:35 pm

Thank you for the recommended read and the wonderful comment! I love how you are careful to select the words you wish to share with the children about playing outdoors. There are always things to consider when it comes to safety, but balancing those concerns and still building confidence and a love for the outdoors is always important as well. Thanks again for sharing!

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