Creating Safe Spaces in Adventure Education


Forest fells outdoor expedition lapland

 ‘I think’, said Christopher Robin, ‘that we ought to eat all our provisions now, so we won’t have so much to carry.’

(Winnie the Pooh)

Leadership decisions always have implications!

As part of our learning journey we were lucky enough to attend the 18th European Institute for Outdoor Adventure Education and Experiential Learning (EOE) conference in Tralee, on Irelands atlantic coast. Inspired by the presentations we began to think more about creating a safe environment in adventure education…

As professional outdoor leaders we rightly spend a lot of time focused on safety issues. However, we often stay very focused on physical safety related to the environment and equipment:” Watch your footing on those slippery rocks!”, “Ensure your carabiner gate is screwed shut.”.

It is critically important to focus on physical safety and prevent harmful incidents on all our trips. However, it is important to remember that safety has many more layers including social and mental safety (Davies, 1996). A physically, socially or mentally unsafe environment will not only be filled with risks but will hinder participants ability to learn. Therefore, creating a safe learning environment is a key part of leadership in adventure education.

Research by Garvin, Edmondson & Gino, 2008 has  identified  building blocks of a supportive learning environment;

  • Psychological safety: Attendees are comfortable expressing their thoughts and ideas without fear of negative consequences of self-image or status (Kahn, 1990)
  • Time for reflection: Empowering group members through using their own learning via reflective thinking.
  • Openness to new ideas: Encouragement to take risks and explore unknown situations.
  • Appreciation of differences: Being aware of opposing cultures, ideas and world views

Complex learning environments present leaders with many challenges in maintaining a safe space. (Photo Chris Thompson)

Being a leader of adventure activities, it is important to have a leadership style that enhance the building blocks of a supportive learning environment.

Therefore, it is important that a leader shows the willingness to discuss and examine different viewpoints with students. A culture of safety starts with leaders that are inclusive and humble, who encourage their students to speak up or ask for help (Edmonson, 2004); rather than creating a culture of fear of negative consequences. Feeling safe helps encourage the spirit of experimentation and reflection which are so critical for learning (Vander Ark, 2016).

Safe space allows time for reflection and connection to nature (Photo by Chris Thompson)

Besides psychological safety, reflection is a fundamental part of learning process. It enables students to evaluate their experience and compare it with their own values and frameworks. Reflection enables students to challenge their own beliefs, values and attitudes and consequently creates a learning opportunity (Mezirow, 1990).

Therefore, as a leader it is important to actively build in time for reflection within the program. Outdoor activities can be fun, but without a proper reflection it will stay a fun activity instead of a valuable learning opportunity.

Furthermore, openness to new ideas is an important factor that can be enhanced through leadership. As a leader it is important to create an environment where people feel free to experiment and make mistakes because critical reflection and discussion about mistakes in a safe environment are powerfull learnig opportunities (Mezirow, 1990).

Finally, in a safe learning environment the appreciation of differences is vital. Diversity in (student) teams, or a classroom, can improve groups teamwork. However, it is important that those differences are managed with care. Therefore, as a leader it is important to positively acknowledge the differences within a group and stimulate individuals to express themselves and their unique traits  and talents (Sargent & Sue-Chan, 2001).

Summarized; leadership in the outdoors has different elements. As a leader it is your job to ensure that your clients return safe and unharmed from their trip. However, if leaders want to encourage learning and personal development on their outdoor trips, it is of great importance to include the building blocks of a safe learning environment into the adventure.

Text: Chris Thompson and Marie-Louise Ter Horst (Photos: Aleksi Homanen, Chris Thompson)


Davies, M. M. (1996). Outdoors: An important context for young children’s development. Early Child Development and Care115(1), 37-49.

Kahn, W. A. (1990). Psychological conditions of personal engagement and disengagement at work. Academy of Management Journal, 33(4), 692-724.

Milne, A. A., & Shepard, E. H. (1925). Winnie-the-Pooh. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart.

Clapper, T. C. (2010). Creating the safe learning environment. Pailal3(2), 1-6.

Garvin, D. A., Edmondson, A. C., & Gino, F. (2008). Is yours a learning organization?. Harvard business review86(3), 109.

Vander Ark, T. (2016, 29 december). Promoting Psychological Safety in Classrooms for Student Success. Retrieved from

Sargent, L. D., & Sue-Chan, C. (2001). Does diversity affect group efficacy? The intervening role of cohesion and task interdependence. Small Group Research32(4), 426-450.

Last modified: November 22, 2019