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Backpackers at Sunset

Backpackers on a ridge at sunsett

Emotional Safety in Adventure Programming

So much more than bringing them back alive

When you (or your instructors) are running a program, what is your number one priority? Safety, yes! Whether you’re alpine backpacking, rock climbing, facilitating a challenge course, or running group challenges in a gymnasium, your primary goal should be to bring everyone back safe and sound. Most outdoor educators understand that expectation. One aspect of safety that is often overlooked (at least I did for my first few years) is emotional safety. If emotional safety isn’t achieved and maintained, then the greater outcomes of your programming cannot be met.

Alpine Group

So, what does it mean to create an emotionally safe environment? An emotionally safe environment is one in which students of your program:

  • Feel free to open themselves up socially
  • Choose to challenge themselves in a situation where success is not certain
  • Contribute constructively to group/community development
  • Feel safe about giving and receiving feedback

A community that demonstrates emotional safety is open to diversity and inclusive of other people’s norms (although they don’t have to be accepted as the group’s norms). It’s a community that understands the negative impact of bullying and the importance of compassionate and inclusive behavior. Remember Abraham Maslow? Development of love, belonging, and respect in your community is what will allow your students to reach the ‘greater’ outcomes of your program.


Maslow's Hierarchy


Illustration from
AMC Guide to Outdoor Leadership

As an instructor, it is your priority to keep the program emotionally safe.

To develop this emotional safety in a group, it takes much more than outlining a set of rules. And no matter how hard we try, we can’t control students’ behavior. We may be able to set rules and consequences as a last resort, but the chances of the student finding value in maintaining emotional safety and transferring the lessons home, in this situation, are very slim. We need to inspire the students to create an emotionally safe environment. 

Creating a group contract is a fantastic way to do this.

Before diving into the contract, there are a couple of ways that I like to frame the trip with a foundation of inclusivity. My ‘go-to’ is a discussion that highlights the unique opportunity all of the students have. I highlight that this is the only time they will be in this place, with all of these people. I tell them that everyone here has unique perspectives and experiences and has something to teach all of us; if we create a safe and inclusive environment then we will be able to take full advantage of everything the experience has to offer. Most important in the framing is that you are giving examples of how to create this environment and how it will positively impact the experience.

With younger groups I like to frame emotional safety with a game called “Insider Outsider.” You start by having the group stand in a circle, except for one person, and lock arms at the elbow. Take the one person off to the side, just out of ear shot, and tell them when you call to them they are going to try to get to the center of the circle. When you get back to the circle, call to the person standing alone and as they are walking over quickly explain to the group that this person is going to try to get into the center of the circle. I generally explain it very quickly and in an excited and hurried voice. Most of the time, when the person tries to get into the center of the circle, everyone will try to keep them out. When I debrief this activity, I will often try to tie it into exclusive behavior: how that could affect someone, how easy it is to be exclusive, and ways that we could see exclusive behavior on the program.

Backpackers Group

After the framing I like to have the students build their own expectations. This is when I introduce the group contract. The timing of this process can be vital and it can be difficult to find a balance. If you do it too early, the students don’t yet know what to expect from the experience so it will be hard for them to develop norms. If it is done too late, then norms are established and changing behaviors is often more difficult than preventing behaviors. Often the best timing is in the first two, maybe three, days of a course. Although on short programs I will make it one of my first activities and I’ll do it right away if I see any negative influential behaviors, on longer programs I will prioritize finding the exact right timing.

In the simplest form the group contract is a list of behaviors, norms, and attitudes that the students would like to see, and not see, on the course. It’s important that the students create these expectations themselves, although you should be facilitating by inspiring and guiding their conversations. I have seen these contracts in many different forms. One of my favorites requires the contract to be written onto something that is going to be travelling with the students through the entire experience. That could be a large piece of paper, a t-shirt, flag, or whatever your creative mind can come up with.

To start, I have everyone put one hand on the blank contract, forming a circle with everyone’s pinky or thumb touching the pinky/thumb of the person next to them. Make sure there are no gaps in the circle! Once everyone is ready, have them trace the outline of their hand with a marker. Once the hands are removed you should have a circle.

Next is the facilitation. As the students are coming up with norms, have them reach consensus on those that they think will be vital to their community. When the group is in agreement on certain norms, write the positive ones on the inside of the hand circle and the negative examples on the outside. After the students have decided the list is adequate, have everyone sign the palm of their hand on the contract to represent their willingness to follow the group contract.

Once it’s completed, it can continue to be used as a tool for emotional safety throughout the trip. It’s good to explain to the group that this is a living document. When they decide they want to change certain norms, and they often do, be sure to open that forum. I will often bring the group contract out during an evening meeting to evaluate the contract and discuss what they might need to change. If this is done too often it can become monotonous and the students may lose interest.

One effective activity to maintain buy-in is to occasionally have everyone add something to his or her hand on the contract. For example, one night I may have everyone write a goal for the course on the index finger, or a way they contribute to the group on the thumb, or something that may be a trigger for them, etc. It’s personal, interactive, and comes from each student, not instructors, giving them ownership.

To keep the group invested in the contract, and to acknowledge positive influential leadership, the group can use the contract as an award. If the contract is on a t-shirt, have the group decide who best represented the positive norms and have them wear it for a day. If it’s on a flag, the group chooses who gets to fly it from their backpack. Keeping it fun and interactive will keep the group invested and interested.

Kayakers Group

Once the frame has been set and the group has developed a group contract, it still takes coaching to create, and maintain, that emotionally safe environment. Many students won’t realize when they are being exclusive or culturally insensitive. I have found that it takes a lot of follow-up and making space for one-on-one check-ins early on in the program. Even just the process of helping a student take a step back and think about how his or her actions or behaviors (whether they are good or bad) affect individuals or the group is a great thing to experience.

There are many different ways to frame, build, and maintain emotional safety. It will vary from group to group and instructor to instructor. The only important piece of the process is that you are making it a priority and that the students believe you genuinely care. So, let’s hear it. What are some ways that you create an emotionally safe environment?

Chad LaflammeChad Laflamme is currently the Head Climber Course Director for Outward Bound California and is working on his MEd of Curriculum and Instruction with Plymouth State University. Chad has been working in Outdoor Education for nearly 10 years as an instructor, course director, volunteer coordinator, manager, adjunct professor, and trainer. He is also known as being one of the slowest sport climbers in history. Find him on LinkedIn.



The opinions of contributing writers may not be the the same as the opinions of OSI.

Posted by

Chad Laflamme

on 3/25/15
Outdoor LeadershipResource


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