Risk in outdoor education: analysis and management

By Nic Shaw

We all want a safe environment for our children and to keep them from harm. This is only natural.

However, there is a growing body of research that indicates that risk, along with risk-taking, can be beneficial, and that too much sheltering can have a detrimental effect on the development of a child into a confident adult. This article attempts to analyse the nature of risk from the perspective of outdoor and adventure education, while looking at some of the positive aspects of taking risks, and finally discussing some aspects of risk management that adventure providers should have in place.

“Nobody takes a risk in the expectation that it will fail.” — Bernstein

The word adventure originates from the Latin phrase ad venio, meaning ‘whatever comes’. This implies that by its very definition, adventure has an uncertain outcome, and also that there is the deliberate inclusion of activities that may contain a threat to an individual’s health or life. It is this uncertainty of outcome that provides the excitement and thrill of an adventure experience, and the successful completion of the adventure – in spite of the uncertainty – that can lead to the rewarding returns of insight, personal growth and peak experience.

In his book Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder, Richard Louv1 argues that risk aversion is one of the main reasons that many children today have been denied access to adventure and play in natural spaces, albeit with the best intentions. He also draws strong causal links between the lack of outdoor play and adventure and the very disturbing childhood trends of increased incidence of obesity, learning disorders and depression.

“The dangers of life are infinite, and among them is safety.” — Goethe

Life is inherently risky. One only needs to watch the news or read a medical magazine to be made aware of the serious dangers that face us on a daily basis. However, most of us are able to assess the level of risk in any given situation, and then make decisions about whether the reward justifies the threat. How did we learn this skill? The answer, it would seem, is by taking on a new challenge. Britain has some of the most riskaverse legislation in the world, mostly due to high levels of litigation and compensation-seeking. There are two very noticeable side-effects emerging from this well-meaning but restrictive environment. The first is that children and young people are unable to assess risk clearly, simply because they have had no experience in doing so. The other side-effect – probably related – is that children and young adults are actively seeking risk in other, often more harmful ways, such as alcohol and substance abuse, irresponsible sexual behaviour and reckless driving.2 Indications are that exposing children and youth to risk through adventure can play an important role in their development, and may even go a long way into making life safer for them in the long term.

“Take calculated risks. That is quite different from being rash.”— General George Patton The safe provision of adventure activities at schools requires a risk management process that allows for the sense of uncertainty spoken about above, while at the same time reducing the likelihood of accident or injury. Adventure and outdoor learning literature differentiates between three types of threat:3

  • absolute risk: the uppermost limit of peril, inherent in a situation with no safety controls present
  • real risk: the amount of risk that actually exists at a given moment in time; this can be seen as absolute risk adjusted by safety controls
  • perceived risk: an individual’s subjective assessment of the real risk present at any time.

In this light, the purpose of risk management in an adventure context – and ultimately, the responsibility of the provider – is to reduce the levels of real danger while allowing for the existence of perceived adventure. In this way, the client or participant can still feel the thrill and still experience the rewards of achievement, but with the highest chance of not getting hurt in the process. Any school or adventure destination should therefore have the following aspects of a risk management system in place:

  • Staff/instructor training and qualifications: It is imperative that adventure instructors are adequately trained for the activities they are leading. In-house training is acceptable where no qualifications exist, but where qualifications do exist they should be mandatory. South Africa has very few outdoor qualifications, so some centres utilise foreign qualification systems. A notable exception is for climbing, abseiling and mountaineering qualifications, which are administered by the Mountaineering Development and Training Trust (www.samdt.co.za).
  • Risk assessments: Every activity should be subjected to a formal risk assessment process, which helps the adventure provider to identify and clarify the absolute risks in the activity, and to put in place the safety controls to reduce them. It also provides the focus for a health and safety briefing that is given to the participant or group prior to the activity. Risk assessments should be carried out by a team rather than individually, and a formal record of the assessment should be kept.
  • Emergency management protocols (EMPs): It is crucial to plan for when things go wrong. A proper EMP should include a mechanism to collect and access important medical and contact details of clients, written casualty evacuation procedures, a tested emergency response system and a flow chart to assist with decision-making in times of stress. Adventure may be inherently hazardous, but much of the risk can be managed. The safe enjoyment of adventure can help young people to learn more about themselves and their friends, develop physical skills and resilience, contribute towards developing an active and healthy lifestyle, and empower them to assess and make informed decisions about risk. Also, it’s fun!


1. Louv, R. (2008) Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder. Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books.

2. See, for example, http://www.nhs.uk/Livewell/studenthealth/Pages/Smoking, alcoholanddrugs.aspx.

3. See, for example, http://www.sportnz.org.nz/Documents/Research/awardedgrants/ RiskPerceptionSPARCFinalReport.pdf.

Category: Winter 2013

About the Author ()

News posts added for Independent Education by Global Latitude DMA

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *