Learning to negotiate risk is an important part of early childhood development, but risk is only healthy and developmentally appropriate insofar as it is managed, to the appropriate degree, by a knowledgeable and attentive adult. Nature-based programs are obligated to mitigate, or if possible remove, hazards in the environment, and to create environments and experiences that allow children to take risks that are individually and developmentally appropriate. (For more on distinguishing between risks and hazards, see inset on pages 48-49.)
Nature-Based Preschool Professional Practice: Safety
The practices and considerations described in this chapter pertain primarily to the safe exploration of wild environments with young children, and to activities that are unique to nature-based programs. Indoor spaces and managed outdoor spaces do carry risks, and should conform to accepted best practices in early childhood education, licensing guidelines, and related regulations. When programs go “beyond the fence,” practices often need to change. Nature-based programs begin the safety practices described here before children enter the program, continue while children are in the program’s care, and analyze and adapt the practices continuously.
The following is a summary of the safety practices in the Guidebook. Download a pdf of the summary practices here, or find full details on the considerations related to these practices in the Guidebook.
A nature-based program’s success in developing a high-quality program that values healthy risk depends in large part on the quality and amount of the educators’ training and experience. A well-developed training program helps programs constantly evaluate their training needs and address those needs in a timely fashion. The following practices reflect the training needs for nature-based preschool staff, and the outside expertise that may be needed to ensure safe learning environments.
1. Teachers and administrators are trained in adult and pediatric CPR and first aid (or other skills mandated by the state in which the program operates) and possess other training as appropriate to the program’s location and activities.
2. Programs rely on outside experts as needed to provide guidance in maintaining a safe program.
Before children enter the program (either for the year, the season, the week, or the day), program staff attend to a variety of safety details, from the selection of sites, to the development of safety plans, to communication with parents and caregivers. The following practices relate to safety considerations before children engage in outdoor learning in a nature-based program.
1. Regular site assessments of outdoor environments identify hazards and plan for the removal or mitigation of hazards in the environment.
2. Programs develop benefit-risk assessments that examine benefits and risks of activities in support of the curriculum and develop policies for managing risk in activities.
3. Programs develop and communicate emergency policies.
4. Programs develop policies and procedures for protecting the health and hygiene of children and teachers in outdoor environments.
5. Programs secure, maintain, and use safety gear appropriate to the program and its activities.
6. Children and teachers are equipped with clothing that is appropriate to the activity and weather conditions.
7. Safety practices are informed by and communicated to parents and caregivers.
As programs engage children in the nature-based curriculum, particularly in the outdoors, additional safety considerations come into play that build on the pre-program policies and procedures that have been developed. Some of these practices are planned before the children enter the program, but are executed in the field.
1. Teachers help children build risk management skills that are appropriate to the children’s developmental stage and abilities, and to the program’s activities and settings.
2. Teacher-child ratios ensure adequate supervision, particularly in wild outdoor environments.
3. Boundaries set in outdoor and wild spaces ensure teachers maintain a line of sight and auditory connection.
4. Programs employ strategies that ensure effective supervision.
Safety considerations continue even after children leave school for the day, week, season, or year. The following practices help programs constantly review and improve safety strategies.
1. Programs regularly schedule time to evaluate and adjust safety practices as needed.
2. Safety incidents (such as injuries or emergencies) are promptly reported to parents or caregivers, teachers, administrators, and appropriate state agencies as required, and are reviewed to determine whether policy changes are needed.
3. Safety-related curriculum and teaching strategies are reviewed for effectiveness and adapted as needed.