By Sophie Watson
As coaches, youth leaders, and outdoor practitioners, we are used to considering the needs of the young people we work with. We work hard to ensure they have positive, enjoyable, and meaningful experiences in the outdoors. However, there may be one area of outdoor practice and culture that requires further attention. I’m talking about… periods!
Research shows¹ that for some young people, having their period is significant barrier to their outdoor participation and enjoyment. Although many tamariki and rangitahi are taught about menstruation at school (although, often only female students), the information they are given tends to focus on the biology of menstruation and doesn’t address how to manage periods during physical activity or when they’re in the outdoors. The secrecy and shame associated with menstruation often means that young people aren’t given adequate support to manage their period.
Rangatahi are increasingly open about their menstruation experiences and needs and want their teachers and outdoor leaders to feel comfortable having open, respectful and supportive conversations with them about periods. Some young people have painful or heavy periods, which can affect their mood and physical ability. Others experience minor symptoms. There is no ‘right way’ to manage your period. It’s important follow the lead of each young person – they know their body best.
“My period can affect my participation in sport…usually when I’m on my period I quite often feel hot, faint and sick.” (Young Samoan/Pākehā woman)
“Sometimes having my period is an unintended blessing. When I hike with my period, I generally take it easier on myself - I slow down a bit more and spend more time ‘still’. Doing this can help me to enjoy my surroundings even more.” (Adult Pākehā woman)
Talking about periods may seem like a daunting prospect, especially if you don’t menstruate. However, offering your support to those who menstruate, and considering their specific needs during outdoor activities or sport, can make a positive difference to young people’s participation and enjoyment of experiences of physical activity.
“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)
So, what can you do to support young people who might be menstruating?
- Upskill yourself: Think about the challenges menstruators might experience in your sport/activity and identify ways to manage them. Learn about the different periods management strategies that people use, so you can share them with others. Ask for help if you need it.
- Think about language: How you talk about periods and gender has a big impact on people’s perceptions and behaviours. Use positive or neutral language when talking about periods. Remember that not all girls menstruate, and not everyone who menstruates is a girl. Use inclusive language when addressing groups (for example, using ‘team’, ‘folks’, ‘whānau’, or ‘people’, instead of ‘guys’), and learn how to say ‘period’ in different languages – ‘ikura’ is one of the Māori words for period.
- Create safe and open spaces for young people to talk about their experiences or ask for help. This means talking about periods in a positive and empowering way in front of the whole group to normalise it. Role model supportive behaviours, for example by showing empathy if someone is experiencing painful cramps and needs to walk more slowly. If someone in the group makes a negative or harmful comment, make sure you address it.
- Consider facilities and equipment: If you’re participating in activities in remote places, think about what toileting facilities are available. Share with the group where the toilets are (i.e., how many hours away). If there aren’t any available, create a private place for people to change their period products (for example by bringing a tarp/sarong that people can change behind). It’s also a good idea to create a ‘group period kit’ or carry spare period products. Make sure you talk about what’s in the kit (and how to use it) before you head out. Talk about it the same way you would a first-aid kit.
Coaches, youth leaders, and outdoor practitioners must play a key role in the changing the perceptions and practices of menstruation. By learning about, providing for, and celebrating menstruation and gender diversity, the outdoors will become a space where all our young people can thrive.
Last month, Education Outdoors New Zealand release a resource called ‘Going with the flow: Menstruation and rainbow-inclusive practices in the outdoors’. The resource aims to inspire positive changes to outdoor practice and culture. It includes information about diverse experiences of menstruation (including rainbow perspectives), practical tips and advice, lesson plans suitable to use with young people, and a four-part video series.
You can access the resource at https://www.eonz.org.nz/menstruation-and-rainbow-inclusive-practices/
About the author:
Sophie is a passionate advocate for gender equity, particularly in the outdoors, which played a 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.
¹ Watson, S. (2016). Understanding female secondary school students’ experiences of outdoor education in Aotearoa New Zealand. https://hdl.handle.net/10289/10166