3: Getting started

It’s still uncommon for young children to participate in overnight residentials led by their school or setting. Some may have camped with a uniformed group such as the Beavers, and many will be familiar with the routines of sleepovers with family and friends.

However, a night away from parents or key carers will be a new experience for most children of this age, and it’s therefore crucial to address the issues that could prevent young children from participating in high-quality residential experiences.

In this section of the resource, Gail Ryder Richardson looks at the risks and challenges schools and settings face in developing and delivering residentials for young children, and offers a range of practical tools and activities to clarify processes.

Risks and challenges

Life is a risky business and, as everyone from Peter Moss and Pat Petrie (see sidebar quote) through to the Health and Safety Executive acknowledges, we do our children no favours by eliminating all risk from their lives.

So, if exposing children to risk in a managed and supportive situation is a positive aspect of early years practice, how do we balance the benefits of risk against the potential for harm? How do we introduce challenge whilst keeping hazards to an acceptable level? How can we offer children adventure and keep them safe?   There is no one right answer to these questions; instead it’s necessary to use our professional judgement to reflect on what is appropriate for our children and their families in our setting. Gail Ryder Richardson wrote about managing risk outdoors in early years settings and by kind permission of Nursery Management magazine, her article can be downloaded here

The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (ROSPA) takes a common sense approach to managing risk and recognises that one of the key ways that children learn about safety is by experiencing risk. ROSPA recommends that schools and settings use an approach that focuses on making experiences “as safe as necessary not as safe as possible”  It acknowledges that some degree of risk-taking is an important part of life, and suggests that “without learning to safely manage risks our children and young people cannot fulfil their full potential and as adults, may never realise their dreams”.

Within education there is both statutory and non-statutory information to take into account when thinking about learning away. The early years the statutory curriculum framework requires that:

“Children must be kept safe on outings, and providers must obtain written parental permission for children to take part in outings. Providers must assess the risks or hazards which may arise for children, and must identify the steps to be taken to remove, minimise and manage those risks and hazards. The assessment must include consideration of adult to child ratios. The risk assessment does not necessarily need to be in writing; this is for providers to judge”. EYFS (2012) p25, 3.64: Outings.

The Health and Safety Executive has issued very useful guidance for schools:

“Schools need to ensure that the precautions proposed are proportionate to the risks involved, and that their paperwork is easy to use. They should also take account of the assessments and procedures of any other organisations involved, and ensure that communications with others are clear.”

“The school’s arrangements for trips should ensure that:

  • risk assessment focuses attention on real risks not risks that are trivial and fanciful;
  • proportionate systems are in place so that trips presenting lower-risk activities are quick and easy to organise, and higher-risk activities are properly planned and assessed;
  • those planning the trips are properly supported so that staff can readily check if they have taken sufficient precautions or whether they should do more.”

Read the whole of the HSE’s High Level Statement on school trips here.

For some schools and settings, the first residential experience offered is a camp in the school hall or out on the school field. This experience enables children and staff to do something very different whilst remaining in familiar surroundings – and not too far from home! It can be argued that not all experiences carry the same risks, and that the risks are different for individual children. Different adults carrying out the same risk assessment may also perceive risks in different ways. A calm and sensible discussion to reach a shared perception of the risks and challenges is therefore a vital first step for any staff team considering developing a residential experience. There is lots of information about camping residentials in the Lower-cost models set of free resources, including downloadable planning tools such as a kit list, parental permission form and a worksheet to help children think about their hopes and fears for the camp out.

The Bulwell EAZ Learning Away partnership runs a series of progressive residentials starting with a one-night, one-school camping residential in Year 2 within the secure walled garden of a local stately home, Wollaton Hall. Each school takes their Year 2 pupils to camp in tents on the site overnight, where they take part in activities including den building, orienteering, team games, storytelling and toasting marshmallows on the camp fire as well as using the Hall itself for curriculum-related activities. Teachers visit the site and plan the residentials together, and deliver the vast majority of activities themselves – by doing so they are able to assess and manage risks collaboratively, ensuring that the learning experiences are totally appropriate for their pupils. Read more about this residential here.

Print a copy of the Outdoor Education Advisors’ Panel’s ‘Radar Planning Tool’ to download to aid planning and initial assessment of risk. The tool will help you to define the activities that are best covered by an existing blanket risk management policy, and those that require enhanced risk management, with event specific planning and procedures.

  • Circulate copies of the Radar Planning Tool to members of your team and ask them to complete it too.
  • Afterwards, compare and discuss the decisions you each made to reach a shared understanding of the risk level for each activity.

‘Risk benefit assessment’ is an approach to risk assessment that is now widely used in play settings and schools. Advocated by (amongst others) the HSE, Department for Education and all four of the UK’s national play organisations, the risk-benefit approach aims to weigh up the risks and benefits in a logical and robust way and poses the following questions:

  • Bearing in mind the likelihood of any harm, does the possible harm caused to children by potential hazards outweigh the benefits children will definitely gain from participating in the activity?
  • If the harm could outweigh the benefits, what can be done to manage this situation and reduce the risk to an acceptable level?

For example: if a child unexpectedly becomes ill on a residential it would be necessary to have sufficient staff on the trip to release two members of the team to take the child to seek medical assistance, without compromising the staff: child ratios. Whilst the likelihood of this situation occurring is low (assuming pre-existing conditions such as asthma are already effectively managed), it could in this case compromise ratios and therefore the safety of the whole group. Deploying additional staff over and above legal ratios would help reduce the impact of any unexpected events such as illness.

It is clear that whilst there are many potential benefits to children, their families, the setting and the local community, there is also a lot of anxiety around the very idea of taking such young children away from their homes and families. Use this download to identify the challenges an overnight camp or other residential might include.

The list on the download sets out the challenges and risks that are most frequently mentioned by schools, settings and parents. Add lines to the table to add any additional challenges not already shown. Then discuss and note down ways in which these challenges can be managed or minimised. This completed example might help generate discussion. This task has been designed to help with the following risk benefit assessment activity.

This download provides an overview of the concept of risk benefit as it affects educational settings and includes a template with a completed example of how risk benefit assessment works in practice.

  • Print copies of this download, and meet colleagues to discuss ways to use it in planning outdoor experiences. If you haven’t used risk benefit assessment before, a collaborative approach can be useful to establish boundaries and comfort levels. Use the information generated in the previous activity, Identifying Risks and Challenges, to complete this form.

The question ‘Would you let your six year old go on a school trip and stop overnight?’ generates much debate and a wide range of opinions amongst parents – from a polarised ‘yes’ or ‘no’ – to recognition that the success of residential trips depends on many variable factors, such as the emotional maturity of the child, the length of time away and the confidence of the parent. Perhaps we have to acknowledge that there is no ‘one size fits all’ answer to this question and that for some children, a sleepover at a grandparent’s house is a challenge, whereas others will be familiar with sleeping overnight with their friends at Beaver camp.

As is always best practice within education, we need to consider the individual child and their needs when deciding whether a residential trip is an appropriate experience for them to be involved in at this particular stage of their learning and development.

To help us feel more positively towards this issue it may be helpful to go back to the definition of a residential experience and consider whether there are any existing examples of similar practice that can guide our thinking. When a group of teachers at a Learning Away conference were asked to consider whether they knew of any children under six who regularly slept away from home, aside from the mention of occasional sleepovers with best friends, no examples were identified.

However, within the Early Years sector there are large numbers of children sleeping away from home on a daily basis in situations where a family member does not accompany them. These children spend up to five days a week playing eating and sleeping away from home. Who are they? They are the children of working parents. Where are they? In early years day-care settings across the UK.

Good quality day-care settings within the early years sector have developed effective procedures to ensure that the children in their care are happy and settled, despite being away from their parents for much of the day. How is this situation in day care settings managed to make it a positive experience for children and their families? Can we use the same approaches to taking children in Early Years and Key Stage 1 away from home? What practicalities do we need to consider?

The key elements of the day-care approach can be summed up in two words: preparation and partnerships.

  • Preparation happens prior to the child starting day care and it involves everyone: the child, his/her parents or key carers, and staff. It involves finding about one other, understanding individual requirements, providing information about procedures and processes, discussing concerns, and working out next steps.
  • Partnerships also involves everyone and refers to the developing, on-going and changing relationships between the child and the key person, the key person and the child’s parents, and between the key person and the wider staff team.

Read about the babies at Dimples Nursery, who camp out all day, with all activities, meals, rest and personal care routines taking place in the setting’s field.

Read about the children at Child First Nursery Northampton, who eat and sleep outdoors every day.

Explore how Dodford Farm prepares schools, settings and groups for residential and day visits to the farm.

Find out about the Bulwell EAZ Learning Away partnership residential for Year 2 pupils at Wollaton Hall here.

When planning your residential trip, you’ll need to follow your setting’s formal procedures and guidelines, and comply with your local authority’s requirements. The other themed resources opening in new window on the Learning Away website offer in-depth and focused guidance for any school or setting planning a residential. However, the Lower-cost models and Planning tools resource suites will be of particular interest to early years settings and KS1 teachers.

The Outdoor Education Advisers’ Panel website has information about local education authority outdoor education advisers and off-site activities, and provides national guidance material.

Some under 7s get their first taste of participating in residentials without family members present, or the very least, with parents present but in a ‘volunteer’ capacity as ‘Beavers’ – the youngest group within the Scouting movement. This guidance document for Beaver Leaders (working with 5-7 year olds) offers an alternative perspective to that of formal childcare settings.

The Top Tips below have been used successfully by schools and settings as part of their informal preparations with children and families.

RESEARCH

  • Visit before booking an overnight trip.
  • The more you know about the place to which you are going to take the children, the better time everyone will have.
  • Try out activities, check out sleeping, eating, and washroom areas.

QUESTION

  • Ask for references / testimonials from venues.
  • Contact other schools that have used the same place and find out what they thought of it.

INFORM

  • Hold information sessions for staff and for parents.
  • Provide opportunities for staff and parents to hear about the proposed trip and ask questions.

RE-VISIT

  • Visit again once the overnight trip is booked.
  • Discuss the needs of the group and individual children with the on-site staff.
  • Take photographs and videos, collect leaflets, speak to others users / visitors.

PLAN

  • Hold staff planning meetings.
  • Identify tasks, share responsibilities, complete paperwork, work out transport and emergency arrangements.

PROMOTE

  • Create displays about the planned overnight trip.
  • Share the images and film clips with staff, children, and parents.
  • Make a book of photographs to share and talk through with children.

PARENTS

  • Hold an information session for parents.
  • As well as inviting parents to an open meeting, also invite them to have an individual meeting with their child’s key person where they can ask questions and discuss their child’s needs.

Positive relationships between children, families and staff are a key element of good practice in any educational organisation, and you will already have processes in place to support the staff team, and to foster links with families. However, when planning residential experiences, consider the following issues in detail:

WHO SHOULD GO ON THE RESIDENTIAL?

  • Children: It is highly unlikely that every child will be able, or want, to go, therefore a decision will need to be made about which children will be involved. This tricky decision will need careful consideration by staff and parents alike. Talk to parents about their thoughts, and ask their opinion – ‘How will it feel for your child?’ Acknowledge parents’ and children’s anxieties, and be reassuring, with facts and information that will ease concerns. You should nevertheless be prepared to decide against taking individual children, if the child and its parent are not ready to separate.
  • Staff: Visits beyond the setting’s own location usually benefit from higher numbers of staff and it’s important that staff involved in a residential are comfortable and confident about the high levels of responsibility required. Their role will be in loco parentis – caring for the participating children as their parents would. This is a different role to the team’s usual professional role, and it will require a different approach. Staff will also need to consider the impact of the trip on their own home life – team members who are uncomfortable or unable to commit to going on the residential must be able to opt out. Since this may jeopardise the feasibility of the residential, it’s essential to begin discussions with staff at the earliest opportunity.

COMMUNICATION

There are many ways to keep in touch with families whilst children are participating in a residential, and each family will feel differently about the amount of contact they need whilst their child is away. Manage expectations about contact by being clear about how, and how often, parents will receive information and updates whilst their child is away. It may be necessary to have a range of communication methods in place and discuss with parents what would work for them. For example:

  • a text message at a particular time each day
  • photographs sent to a mobile or email account
  • a phone call with a member of staff
  • an individual or group webcam update
  • a dedicated (and private, invitation only) social media page
  • a bulletin on a noticeboard at school.

Providing a range of contact methods may seem onerous but it is an important part of the unique partnership you have with each child’s family, and will help create and sustain their trust in your ability to keep their child safe and happy whilst on the residential.  This case study, reproduced by kind permission of Nursery World magazine, documents an overnight visit to farm, with particular emphasis on communicating with parents and carers before and during the visit.

Explore the Learning Away website to learn more about the practicalities of developing and delivering brilliant residentials.

  • Free resources, including Lower-cost models, Curriculum integration and Planning tools.
  • Advice and information on subjects as diverse as staffing, affordability and risk management.
  • Case studies from across the UK and from all types of school and setting.

WHAT NEXT?

The next section of resources explores ways to evaluate the impact of residentials on very young children. Before moving on to that section, use this table to begin to identify the actions and priorities you need to take to support the implementation of residential experiences in your school or setting:

  • Next week (short term actions)
  • Next term (medium term actions and priorities)
  • Next academic year (longer term actions and priorities).

When thinking about ‘next steps’ it’s vital to focus on some ‘quick wins’: simple, short-term actions you can take to raise awareness and generate interest in the idea. This will also help to secure staff and parent support and build confidence in learning away as an early years concept.

Longer-term priorities should be aligned with your whole school/setting development plan (or SIP) so that your progress towards delivering brilliant residentials forms an integral part of your school or setting’s overall improvement journey; integrating learning away in this manner has been shown to have a greater impact not just on individual participants but on the school as a whole – browse our Curriculum integration resource for more information.