Outdoor learning has tremendous potential to give children a better appreciation of the natural world. As my hero Sir David Attenborough so eloquently puts it: “No one will protect what they do not care about; and no one will care about what they have never experienced.”
Meaningful connection with the environment can foster a greater interest in our planet, inspire the next generation of geoscientists and create a society better placed to live sustainably. However, I was recently reminded that the prospect of taking pupils out of school presents challenges.
When we held outdoor learning CPD for non-specialist teachers at Dynamic Earth – the science attraction in Edinburgh where I work – getting support on and gaining confidence with risk assessment was right at the top of their requested agenda.
Concerns raised varied from limited access to toilets – which had prevented one teacher taking a group of older primary girls out of school – to assessing the risks associated with pupils roaming beyond agreed boundaries. It was easy to see how the benefits of heading outdoors could become buried under a daunting list of potential hazards.
Yet the opportunity for pupils to explore risk can actually end up being a key benefit of outdoor learning, whether during an extreme-sports adventure or more modest use of the school grounds.
In a recent field skills session run by our learning team, for example, Higher geography students completed a risk assessment before going out to do activities in Holyrood Park in Edinburgh. They were given responsibility for thinking about their own safety rather than the situation being managed for them. This created a more balanced dynamic where everyone was aware that they had to look after themselves and others, and be mindful of the environment around them. That said, I know from experience that the responsibility of taking lively groups of younger pupils out can be worrying.
A risk assessment that sought to eliminate all risk – even if that were possible – would be counterproductive. Instead, it is about planning ahead for potential hazards associated with an activity. Some will apply generally, such as exposure and traffic, whereas others will be specific to the task, such as using garden tools or pond dipping.
A proper risk-management plan, prepared well ahead of time, helps group leaders and pupils to focus on the benefits of their activity, safe in the knowledge that appropriate procedures, routines and protection are in place.
There are various places to get support, from outdoor learning programmes at centres such as ours to training offered by charities like the Conservation Volunteers. Learning Outside the Classroom by Simon Beames et al is an excellent introduction.
Getting the balance right between acceptable risk and outdoor learning is in all our interests – so don’t be afraid to seek out those opportunities.
Dr Hermione Cockburn is scientific director of the Dynamic Earth centre in Edinburgh