Finding balance between outdoor safety and adventure in preschool

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


Getting Outside

Linking up to…


  1. says

    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.

    • Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. says

      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:)

  2. says

    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.

    • Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. says

      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:)

  3. says

    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!

    • Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. says

      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)!

  4. says

    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!

    • Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. says

      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.”

  5. says

    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!!

  6. Bri says

    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.

    • Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. says

      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!