When Children Need the Toilet Outdoors

19 July 2014 · 13 comments

in Early Years Outdoors, Health & Wellbeing, Interesting Issues & Hot Topics, Whole School

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I first blogged about this matter in March 2009 yet I thought it was time to update it, not least because this past year of working on the Wee Green Spaces Project in Aberdeen has flagged up the need to reflect and consider the approaches used. The post is mainly aimed at those who work with younger children but the advice can be adapted accordingly for any age.

As usual, common sense prevails along with available guidelines when it comes to toileting outdoors:

  • If you can use a public convenience then do so.
  • Put in place an environmentally sustainable and Leave No Trace approach.
  • Be mindful of the need to respect children’s privacy and dignity.
  • Ensure your procedures follow best hygiene practice as much as possible.

Wild Toileting

When a site does not have toilet facilities or if you are too far away from public conveniences, it is important to follow the Scottish Access Code guidelines if you go to the toilet outside:

  • If anyone needs a pee, then this must be done at least 30m from open water, rivers or streams.
  • Although pee is less harmful than poo, its smell is unpleasant, so avoid peeing in caves, at the foot of crags or behind any buildings. Also encourage children (especially boys) to aim at the ground, not at a log or “pee tree”.
  • If anyone needs a poo, then go as far away as possible from buildings, from open water, rivers and streams, and from any farm animals. Remove the human poo and used toilet paper, in a double wrapped, sealed, biodegradable plastic bag and dispose of it off site, following your local authority guidelines for biological agents. This is the best approach in that it leaves no trace.  If you are unable to remove the poo and paper, then you will first need to dig a shallow hole.  Bury  the poo in the hole and replace the turf. Carry a plastic trowel with you for this purpose.
  • Always treat sanitary towels and tampons in line with disposing of other blood-soiled products. Never bury these items. Double wrap in sealed plastic bags and take back to school for correct disposal.
  • Wash your hands, following good hand hygiene practices

The Mountaineering Council of Scotland has a handy leaflet which explains other procedures more specifically, in order to minimise the impact of one’s visit. This is important reading for all who lead off-site visits. It also gives sensible advice about sustainable approaches such as using cornstarch or biobags and the need to use biodegradable soap. Do be aware that some of its hand hygiene advice differs to that of Health Protection Scotland (HPS) and that schools and nurseries are should follow HPS advice in the first instance.


When Using the Same Site Continuously

In sites with high usage, seek further advice about moving the toileting area to different places and the frequency with which this needs to be done. This is important if your setting or school is using the same site on a continuous basis. Over the past few years, there has been a growing interest in using compost toilets. A useful starting point for finding out more about these is the Eco Loo Study, published in 2010. Always discuss toileting approaches with the site owner or manager so that you both have a shared agreement and understanding of the procedures which are used.

It is also recommended that you discuss your proposals with a local environmental health officer. In some instances, it may be more appropriate to use a travel potty and then to dispose of the contents in line with your establishment’s procedures for handling biological waste.


Child Protection Matters

Child protection procedures always apply outdoors. If you have to change nappies, children clothes or assist with toileting, follow your school or local authority procedures. It means that a degree of privacy is needed.

In Sweden there is a proverb, “Walk seven bushes”. Now this is very sensible advice. Try it for yourself the next time you are in a wood. It’s just about the right distance to give you a suitable amount of privacy.

However, this is not so easy when working at open sites such as fields, the beach or walking in a built up urban area.

When walking down an urban street where there is no discrete place, using a human shield is an effective approach to maintaining a child’s dignity. This is where the group gathers round in a circle or semi-circle facing outwards and the child who needs the toilet is sheltered from vision by the group and supported by a member of staff.

With beach visits, try experimenting with shelters such as the traditional wind break, pop up shelters and bothy shelters. However these can be time consuming to erect especially on windy or cold days. Alternatively human shields can used if there is no rock, nook or cranny to nip behind or simply too many other visitors around.


What About Adults Accompanying Children?

Remember to have procedures in place for enabling adults to go to the toilet. For example, some settings prefer adults to go in pairs, so that one can lookout for the other and ensure children do not accidentally come across an adult going to the toilet in the woods.


How Can We Change Children’s Nappies?

As much as possible, nurseries should be encouraging children to learn how to go to the toilet off-site too. Putting children back into nappies for the purposes of going off-site is probably not a helpful step forward. Instead have procedures in place for supporting children who are being toilet trained and take changes of clothes just in case an accident happens. For example, wearing waterproof trousers rather than dungarees or all-in-ones  can speed up the process of toileting when time is of essence!

For nappy changing, pop-up shelters or pods can be handy, as can be a roll up changing mat. At one “Rain or Shine” nursery in Sweden, the staff had a big old pram which they used for transporting materials, for children needing a nap and for changing nappies.


Is There a “Best Approach”?

When discussing the matter with staff working in nature kindergartens and forest schools, I found quite a number of approaches are taken to toileting outdoors. This is because different situations require different ways of thinking. There is no one-size-fits-all approach. Generally, children are encouraged to go to the toilet before setting off or arriving on-site. Some choose key moments through the day, where every child goes to the toilet. Getting in and out of dungarees, all-in-one-suits and other outdoor gear is a faff, so children tend not to need the toilet as much outside. Some kindergartens create a little privy area behind a home-made fence or portable windbreak.


Are There Any Good Products We Could Use?

I have never found a perfect product. Every thing depends on your setting’s situation. What does matter is that the approach leaves no trace, is hygienic and any product and is environmentally sustainable. With the increased popularity of festivals portable toilets of all types can be found. Try googling “travel potty” too.



In my experience, toileting routines are a big concern prior to setting up regular off-site visits but once things are up and running, this matter lessens and becomes no more of an issue than back at nursery or school. If you have a child who has particular toileting needs, then ensuring their parent or carer is involved in setting up systems can be helpful too so that there is consistency between home, school and the outdoor space.


Whilst this is a lot of toilet talk, your advice and thoughts are appreciated on this matter! Do you live outwith the UK? What advice can you give from your country?

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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Kierna July 19, 2014 at 09:25

Great tips Juliet, still struggling with this one myself, trying to find the best solution.


Juliet@CreativeSTAR July 20, 2014 at 06:52

Hi Kierna

I think the nurseries where children are going off-site on a weekly or more often basis tend to find solutions experientially. The Secret Garden Outdoor Nursery has certainly done this over the years. So much depends on the children you have in your class and what they can manage.


Becky @lakessinglemum July 19, 2014 at 10:03

Mine are older now but it is easier for my son to pee discretely than for my daughter, it’s hard when you spend lots of time outdoors


Juliet@CreativeSTAR July 20, 2014 at 06:55

Agreed – I think there is a gender difference. It’s also why I think many settings do take a potty – so that young child have something familiar and that can be reassuring.


Merlinda Little (@pixiedusk) July 21, 2014 at 14:19

This is a very very helpful info to me. We are keen in camping and these is important. My son always wee outside and we aim it on plants and trees. Now I know we should aim to the ground. Thanks for sharing =) #countrykids


Leila - Mud Mud Marvellous Mud July 30, 2014 at 20:37

Some great tips here. We used the shallow hole approach on our forest schools site but as we were only out with the kids for a couple of hours at a time it was rarely used. Thanks for sharing at the Outdoor Play Party 🙂


Kierna October 13, 2015 at 17:51

An oldie but a goodie! We now have a shed with a camping toilet in situ for use when up in Bear Woods and so far it is working perfectly.


Juliet Robertson October 13, 2015 at 18:20

Thanks Kierna – Please that you have found a solution!


Jane April 18, 2016 at 22:23

Hi Juliet,

Thanks for your thoughts on this topic! Your link to the 2010 Eco Loo Study doesn’t seem to work any more – would you mind sharing again?




Juliet Robertson April 19, 2016 at 05:42

Thanks for letting me know Jane. I’ve mended the link so hopefully it works now.


Helen October 16, 2016 at 01:14

Great article-thanks. Can you tell me more about how to use the cornstarch? We have a loo tent, folding plastic loo, plastic bag with one scoop of commercial product. Can the cornstarch replace this commercial prouct? Thanks


Juliet Robertson October 16, 2016 at 06:08

Hello Helen
Thanks for your query – I think it’s a typo error – the cornstarch refers to the material biodegradable bags are made from. So no, cornstarch won’t replace a commercial product – but I’m sure there’s alternatives out there. For example, the use of pine needles is common for compost toilets.


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