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


Getting Outside

Linking up to…

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