Updated: Mar 4, 2019
I frequently hear outdoor education practitioners, parents and children using the words safe and safety in the context of outdoor learning. Many parents will ask the question: "If my child participates in your outdoor program, will they be kept safe?" And the short answer is "Not exactly." So today's blog post is about risk management in outdoor and experiential education (OEE) for children, and changing perceptions of the concept of safety while taking part in outdoor and adventure-based activities.
"Of course, we must ensure that we have robust risk management policies and procedures in place when we take children outside, however let's move away from the word safe. It's not helpful in the context of OEE."
According to the dictionary definition, safety is "the state of being 'safe' (from French sauf); the condition of being protected from harm, or other non-desirable outcomes." However, any well-built outdoor education program will expose children to managed risks, and it would be untruthful to state that participants will be kept safe while doing physical activities outside.
Instead, we must encourage children to take risks during OEE, so they learn to push themselves in ways they may never have been challenged before. There is always a chance that in doing so, a child might get bumped, bruised or grazed. But this is not something we should avoid due to unrealistic expectations of safety, or worse, fear of liability.
By taking risks in managed outdoor settings, children learn and develop in unimaginably diverse ways. They learn how to overcome fear. They learn that they need to persevere in order to succeed. And they even develop essential balance and movement skills. There are are a hugely wide variety of skills and dispositions that OEE can help kids to build.
"...any well-built outdoor education program will expose children to managed risks, and it would be untruthful to state that participants will always be safe doing physical activities outside."
We could wrap our children up in cotton wool, and seek to protect them from the outdoors. We could try and keep them safe inside the four walls of the classroom or their homes. However, outdoor education is the perfect way for kids to take chances and push themselves out of their comfort zones - and this is more important now than ever before.
Of course, we must ensure that we have robust risk management policies and procedures in place when we take children outside to do adventurous activities, however let's move away from the word safe. It's not helpful in the context of OEE. No child is ever truly safe in the outdoors 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). But that's exactly my point - we must provide children with opportunities to become risk-takers in our increasingly indoor and technology-driven world by getting them outdoors.
Essentially outdoor education professionals must ensure that their programs satisfy three important criteria to successfully achieve this (taken from Parkin and Blades, 1998):
Programs have identifiable aims and objectives;
The most appropriate site has been selected to achieve these aims; and
The planned activity is based on a sound risk management strategy.
There is little doubt that stress, injury and serious harm are all outcomes of an outdoor education program that has not been planned and conducted with effective risk management in place. Program hazards may be the result of an oversight in the program planning process, or a failure to identify appropriate strategies to reduce the likelihood of, or manage incidents during the running of the outdoor program.
"No child is ever truly safe in the outdoors 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). But that's my point - we must provide children opportunities to become risk-takers in our increasingly indoor and technology-driven world."
However, provided that professional outdoor educators minimize program hazards and the risk of injury by identifying, reducing and controlling hazards, and document appropriate risk reduction and risk management strategies, positive outcomes to outdoor activity programs can be successfully achieved.
This is a vital point, and one we must all remember if we are to support the next generation of children to get outdoors, grow into well-rounded individuals with the coping skills necessary to do well in life, and learn to take risks to achieve their own personal goals and dreams.
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