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This week on The Leak Sophie writes about how to mix menstruation with exploring the outdoors and how, with a bit of preparation and support, they can be more compatible than they seem.

I’ve been privileged to share many great outdoor adventures with young people. For over a decade I worked as an outdoor education teacher at an all-girls secondary school in Wellington, Aotearoa New Zealand. Although I’m no longer teaching in schools, I’m still passionate about supporting young people to find meaning and joy in their outdoor experiences.

As someone who menstruates, I know how challenging it can be to have your period outdoors. Although I learnt about menstruation in Health Education when I was at school, I remember feeling completely ‘in the dark’ about how to manage my period on outdoor fieldtrips. My parents and outdoor education teachers, although supportive, didn’t give me any period management advice. This left me feeling uncertain and anxious when I knew my ‘monthly’ was due. 

Fast-forward to my own teaching career, I was adamant that my students wouldn’t have to face the same challenges that I had. To create a supportive and inclusive learning environment I ran sessions about the ways my students could safely and comfortably manage their period in the outdoors. On every fieldtrip we carried a group period kit, so that they had the resources to manage their period if it arrived unexpectedly.

In 2016, I completed my Master’s thesis on the experiences of young women in secondary school outdoor education programmes. I was disappointed (but unsurprised) when my research identified that for some of the young women, managing their period was a significant barrier to their outdoor participation and enjoyment. These young women were clear – they want the support and advice of their teachers, regardless of whether their teacher menstruates or not. 

The research got me thinking about how more students could access the support they needed to thrive outdoors while having their period. Despite being a Health Education teacher, I understood how daunting it could be to talk with students about personal topics like menstruation. The teachers I know care about the wellbeing of their students, so it’s not a lack of care that prevents them from providing for their menstruating students. Instead, inadequate knowledge of periods, and safety concerns (many educators are cautious of treading into territory that could be deemed ‘inappropriate’), are often the main stalling blocks. Negative perceptions of menstruation have meant periods have been shunned into the ‘not to be talked about’ corner. This makes raising it, especially if you’re a non-menstruator, even more challenging. 

“Menstruation isn’t something to be sorry or ashamed about.” (Young Samoan woman)

“I wish someone had told me that having your period in the outdoors is ok and normal. And that you’ll be able to manage it…” (Young Pākehā woman)

And so, Going with the flow: Menstruation and rainbow-inclusive practices in the outdoors was born. Produced by Education Outdoors New Zealand, the multi-media resource supports educators, youth leaders, and outdoor practitioners to provide safe and inclusive experiences for menstruating students, including students who are part of the Rainbow community.

The resource includes an e-book with in-depth information about menstruation myths and stories, different cultural practices of menstruation, ways to support gender diversity in the outdoors, and strategies and advice for managing periods in the outdoors. There are also five lesson plans that can be used with young people aged 10-15 years old, and a four-part video series which unpacks the e-book content in a fun, youth-engaging way. While the resource is primarily for people who work with youth, it has been created to ensure adults aren’t the gatekeepers of this knowledge. Instead, the resource includes youth-friendly language and design, to enable them to easily access the information on their own. 

Being involved in the development of this resource has been a humbling and inspiring experience. Thinking back to the ways I supported my students to manage their periods, there were many good things I did. There were also times I unwittingly limited them or failed to provide fully inclusive experiences. Why do I share this? Because I know how challenging this work can be. As we know, change can look simple on paper, but in reality, it’s messy, complex, challenging, and also full of wonder and joy. I’ve learned to be kind to myself in this journey.

Wherever you are in your ‘period’ journey (including as an ally to menstruating people), I encourage you to be curious and courageous. Take steps to increase your knowledge, begin conversations, openly listen, and appropriately respond to the needs of others. You won’t always get things right and that’s ok. Be honest, apologise, and move on. 

The joy that I feel when I share outdoor experiences with young people is even greater when I know that their period is no longer a barrier they need to navigate. We can all play a role in altering outdoor period culture and practice for the generations to come.

You can access Going with the flow on the Education Outdoors New Zealand website: 

Sophie Watson

Co-Chair, Education Outdoors New Zealand

Sophie is a passionate advocate of gender equity, particularly in the outdoors, which played an important role in her life growing up in Aotearoa New Zealand. She has held numerous educational roles, including as a secondary school teacher for over a decade. Sophie currently works as a researcher at the New Zealand Council for Educational Research, and as a professional learning facilitator and co-chair for Education Outdoors New Zealand. She is the project leader and principal writer of ‘Going with the flow’.