Updated: Mar 18, 2019
In recent years, I've actively sought global opportunities to work in outdoor and experiential education roles for youth in various countries including in the UK, Germany, US, Canada & Thailand. Thankfully, this has given me a unique perspective in terms of the risk management culture in outdoor education within these diverse countries, with a focus on international school settings and residential outdoor education centers.
In my view, risk tolerance is an urgent issue in education in general, which needs to be approached with care. What I've learned about risk culture and getting children outside the classroom is the subject of my latest blog post.
"There are already enough barriers to getting children outdoors, especially among inner city kids. The last thing we want to do is make things any harder than they already are for schools and youth groups to get children outside the classroom and immersed within nature."
Managing risk in outdoor education hinges on the reduction of the degree of real risk to a level considered acceptable to everyday exposure. But before we get to the crux of this blog post, we must first define some key terminology to ensure we're all speaking the same language.
Safety in outdoor learning is of paramount concern, however it can never be fully guaranteed because there are many factors which we have little or no control over (e.g. a sudden rock fall, gear failure, human error or extreme weather). This is a vital point. In the planning stages of any overnight outdoor education camp for children, parents almost always ask variations of the following question: 'Can you make sure our children will be kept safe?'
"...it's impossible to ensure that children participating in managed outdoor activities will be 100% safe because any well-built outdoor program will push participants out of their comfort zones - and in the process, they will be exposed to some risks."
My answer to this understandable parental question goes something like this: 'The simple answer is yes and no; there's always an element of risk in taking children outdoors for adventure-based activities. But we do everything we can to reduce any risk to an acceptable level, and we have stringent risk management procedures in place to do this.'
The take-home message is this - it's impossible to ensure that children participating in outdoor learning and adventurous activities will be 100% safe, and that's because any well-constructed outdoor program will push participants out of their comfort zones - and in the process, they'll be exposed to some risks. But by following best practice and ensuring appropriate safeguards are in place, we can greatly limit any risks to an acceptable level.
The Elephant in the Room
There are already enough barriers to getting kids outdoors, especially among inner city children. The last thing we need is to make things any harder than they already are for schools and youth groups to get children outside and immersed in nature. However, there's an elephant in the room, which I've purposefully avoided to mention until now - and that's the issue of, dare I say it, f-e-a-r o-f l-i-a-b-i-l-i-t-y. The likelihood of being sued plays a big role in the risk culture linked to outdoor education in different countries and that goes for schools, youth groups and outdoor education centers alike. In my experience, fear of liability is one of the biggest barriers to getting children outdoors and this is particularly severe in countries like the UK and US, where liability concerns tend to be greatest.
A German Case Study: A Montessori International School
A few years ago, I worked at a Montessori International School in Germany. In the land of beer and sausages (which I thoroughly recommend by the way), I found there tends to be more of a common sense approach to risk tolerance in outdoor settings - something which is the case for most day-to-day matters in Germany - pragmatism usually triumphs. Children in Germany are generally more free to play outdoors and take measured risks during outdoor play.
To put this into context, one time in the playground a young girl climbed up a tree and was sitting happily on a branch. I glanced at my colleague, who wasn't the least bit concerned. I politely asked her 'Is it normal for children to climb trees in the school yard? What happens if she falls and breaks her arm? Won't the school get sued?' Her response was in stark contrast to my experience in the UK or US. She looked at me in surprise and said, in a subtle German accent, 'Well, if she falls and breaks her arm, she falls and breaks her arm. It's all part of growing up and learning to take some risks.'
A UK Case Study: Scouts
Recently, a Scout group in the UK got stuck in a liability issue and faced court proceedings. In brief, a young Scout decided to swing on the metal gate at the entrance of the Scout group's premises - something which he did without permission and against the instructions of the supervising adult leaders. As the boy swung, his body weight unhinged the gate and it fell on him, causing him some significant injuries including a broken arm. It was argued that if the Scout group had taken better care of maintaining the gate, this could have been prevented. The Scout Organization has basic liability insurance to help cover issues like this. However, most Scout groups rely on fundraising and charitable donations to survive, making building and facility maintenance an ever more challenging obligation. The boy's parents won the case and the Scout group was forced to pay damages due to negligence. But is this right? I'll let you decide - it's rarely black and white in the world of liability.
The Liability Barrier
In my experience, fear of liability is a big barrier to getting children outdoors, particularly in English-speaking nations including the UK and US - and it's not healthy. It primarily reflects the fear and likelihood of being sued. It should be emphasized that liability has some benefits. It acts as a preventative measure and creates consequences for poor practice and negligence in education and society as a whole.
But equally, it would be tragic if the next generation of children missed out on outdoor learning and adventurous activities due to liability concerns. We need a more reasoned and common sense approach to ensure we achieve the right balance, and that requires a re-think on liability issues in general, and where we choose to draw the line in the legal frameworks we adopt within our society.
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