Managing risks and hazards in your school forest

DNR forester leaning against tree talking with teachers

Your school forest is an outdoor classroom

Always refer to your school forest as your “outdoor classroom.” Consider your school forest a “need to have,” not a “nice to have.” Your school leadership should support your outdoor classroom just as they would any other classroom, gym, media center, etc.

Tell your principal, superintendent, or director about setting expectations with your groundskeeper or whomever takes care of the schoolyard area. Does your facilities staff know you have an outdoor classroom that needs to be maintained? Who should be in charge of removing hazards? Do you have an active PTA or PTO who can monitor the school forest or schoolyard?

Risks and mitigations

Risks are expected. We can see a risk ahead of time and assess for ourselves if we want to engage with it. Playground equipment is an example of allowing risks in a schoolyard. Students can judge for themselves whether to engage with the “big swing” or prefer to use the lowest climbing bars. We mitigate falls on a playground by clearing debris around the fall zone.

Risks can be mitigated with a little experience and education. Use your best judgment and do what’s comfortable for you.

prickly gooseberry

RiskHow to mitigate

Uneven ground, stones, roots, etc.

Students should always wear closed-toe shoes or boots and pay attention to where they walk and run.

Very cold temperatures

Teach students how to dress for the weather. Some schools provide snow suits, boots, and mittens for children. Follow your school or district’s cold weather rules.

“Safe” litter (paper, plastic)

Carry a trash bag and teach students to pack out what they pack in.

Ask the groundskeeper for a trash can at the trail head.

Large, downed logs
Climbing trees
Boulders

Let children judge if walking on it is safe, just like they would any playground equipment. You may want to clear hazards out of the fall zone. Many school forests purposely arrange downed logs for children to play on.

Ice on frozen pond

Pond ice is considered safe for walking if it is at least 5 inches thick. Ice safety rules

Open water

Teach students your water rules before heading out. If you know that the water is very deep, consider avoiding it altogether. Know what you will do if a child gets wet.

Traffic / parking lots

Select a route to your school forest that avoids high-traffic areas.

Plants with prickles or thorns

Tell children to avoid those plants. Scratches and prickles are temporary and a teachable moment. Carry a simple first-aid kit if you think this will be a problem.

Berries

Know your berries ahead of time. Fall raspberries can be a fun teachable moment. But make sure students know which berries are off-limits or OK to eat.
Know your students ahead of time. Berries may be irresistible to 4-year-olds, but fine in a group of 10-year-olds.

Mosquitoes

Mosquito bites are annoying but temporary. Teach students to wear hats, long sleeves, and bring bug spray.

Ticks

While ticks can be active whenever it’s above freezing, they’re most active in warmer weather and in tall grasses. Require students to tuck their pant legs into their socks, wear bug spray on shoes and ankles, and wear closed-toe shoes. Check for ticks at the end of the day. Some classrooms keep a strip of “tick-tape,” which is created by sticking any found ticks to a long strip of clear cellophane tape. (The purpose is to transform “ick!” into “wow!”)

Bee stings

Teach bee manners. Observing bees and wasps can be a great educational moment, but don’t touch. Know which students may have insect allergies and bring an epi-pen. Many schools encourage pollinators and bumblebees as they can provide a number of teachable moments.

Dog feces

Post signs that say, “Children Learn Here: No Dogs” or “Children Learn Here: Pick Up Dog Waste.” Children can also make door hangers to hang on neighbors’ doors during a walking field trip.

Sticks

Sticks are nature’s open-ended toy. They can be used to build forts, become fairy wants or swords, or serve a variety of make-believe uses. It’s up to you to decide to allow children to use them. Stick rules that have worked include:

  1. Use sticks no longer than your arm.
  2. Your stick cannot touch anyone else’s stick or body.
  3. If someone forgets rule #1 or #2, no more sticks for anyone today and we’ll try again tomorrow.

The same rules work for icicles too.

Firepits

Firepits can be a great asset in school forests. A small fire, safely bult in a firepit or on top of snow, provides a tantalizing focal point for children who are listening to stories. Some schools teach students how to build a safe fire and put it out.

Hazards and how to remove

Hazards are unexpected. They harder to detect and avoid and therefore can be dangerous. Examples might include a hidden tree root causing people to trip, a diseased tree that may fail at any moment, pollutants from idling gas motors, broken steps, shards of glass on the floor, etc.

braded wire around a tree

ExampleHow to remove

Unsafe litter (broken glass, drug paraphernalia, barbed wire)

Remove it. Wear gloves. (Only adults should handle hazardous materials.)
Prevent litter by using your forest more often and posting signs that say, “kids learn here.”
If you suspect litter associated with methamphetamine, tag a location pin, leave the area, and call local law enforcement to remove it immediately. Do not remove this yourself.
Report ALL vandalism to the local police. Even if they can’t act on it, reporting every incident creates a record and detects patterns.

Large, broken branches hanging precariously in trees, aka “widowmakers”

Take a photo of the hazard and note the location. Give the photo to your groundskeeper and ask them to remove it. If grounds staff cannot remove it, ask for help from parents, PTO, neighbors, or other volunteers. Copy your administration so they know it’s being taken care of.

Poison ivy in high use areas

Poison ivy is native to Minnesota and several species of wildlife eat it. However, some people are severely allergic to this plant. If you decide to remove it, here’s how to remove poison ivy safely.

Hunting, trapping and firearms activities while school is in session

Post No hunting signs every 500 to 1000 feet along the perimeter of your site. This statute excerpt explains how and why.
Report all unauthorized hunting activities to the local police.
If hunting is allowed in nearby areas, provide high visibility vests for students during hunting season.

Lightning

A little rain hurts no one. But STAY INDOORS if lightning is predicted.

Dangerous graffiti

If vandals are spray-painting or carving gang signs, racial slurs, or profane language, take a photo, have it removed immediately, and report it to the police (attach the photo).

Off-leash dogs

Off-leash dogs can be unpredictable. Immediately tell the owner to leash the animal. If the owner is not around, leave the area.
Consider posting “no dogs” or “dogs must be leashed” signs.

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