The great outdoors

Falling down is part of life – getting back up again is living! 

“Childhood is being undermined by the growth of risk aversion.” Tim Gill

Our schools have been faced with unreasonable fear of injury in the past few years brought about by media, myths around Work Health and Safety Standards, and a well-intended desire to protect our students. The result however has been students have been too protected and are not being enabled to develop the skills necessary to keep themselves safe. These are skills such as the ability to judge their own capacity to undertake an experience or to scope a situation to determine hazards for themselves.  If not allowed to explore their limits throughout their childhood this will eventually be detrimental to a young adults employability, mental health resilience, and potential entrepreneurialism.

In response the Tasmanian Catholic Education Office developed the Risk and Adventure in Outdoor Learning Policy.  The purpose of which was to redress the balance between care and risk in order that students are able to grow and develop skills and understandings that will assist them to be healthy, strong and able to assess risk for themselves into the future.

The bottom line: children need risk. It is a powerful catalyst for growth that helps them develop good judgment, persistence, courage, resiliency and confidence.

A detailed process was undertaken in the development of the RAOL Policy to ensure that all WHS Laws, Regulations and Codes of Practice would be complied with.  The Policy enables the use of a risk-to-benefit analysis so that while the negative potential is assessed, it is balanced against the positive potential of the activity for the development of the student.  It uses the following definition to enable this innovation coupled with legal compliance:

‘Reasonable risk taking’ means the responsible adult has recognised the risk, examined the hazards, balanced the likelihood of an accident happening against the severity of the harm that would take place if it did happen, and taken the appropriate action.

The RAOL Policy is based on research which warns of the dangers of wrapping children in cotton wool in an attempt to protect them and claims the result of such action will in fact be an increase in risk as students do not develop skills and have experiences from which they learn their physical boundaries, the limits of their abilities and the skills to avoid excessive and unnecessary risk.  Neither will they learn to extend themselves, to push harder, to go further than they have before.

“The bottom line: children need risk. It is a powerful catalyst for growth that helps them develop good judgment, persistence, courage, resiliency and confidence.” Ken Finch 

Exposure to risk and exposure to danger are not the same.  Exposure to low level, well managed risk helps students to learn their limits, to experience the edges of their capacity and to develop coping mechanisms for when they do face dangerous situations. Failure to expose students to low level, well-managed risk is a failure to protect them.

Through play and outdoor experiences students are given the opportunity to:

  • Take informed and reasonable risks and make mistakes
  • Make informed and reasonable choices that involve challenge
  • Use a range of tools and equipment safely
  • Experience a range of activities which will encourage interest and curiosity
  • Be assisted to build the confidence to take manageable and controllable risks
  • Develop an understanding of the need for safety when tackling new challenges
  • Learn to assess risks for themselves with help from adults

Whether students fail or succeed at a particular challenge, they learn to manage uncertainty and build resources to become happy, resilient people.

Our schools and students are now engaging in activities which have been missing from playgrounds for many years – activities we as adults remember fondly from our childhood.  Generally this is meaning there is a decreasing emphasis on mass produced artificial playgrounds to more natural ‘playscapes’ incorporating more organic and less defined elements.

An example in one of our schools, occurring as a result of the Policy, is at Sacred Heart Catholic School Ulverstone where the students are able to climb trees.  These students’ words speak far better than the Policy for what can be gained from a balanced approach to risk and care.

What do our students like about climbing the trees?

“It’s a great view of the playground. You feel more free. We don’t feel unsafe. We can climb to the yellow line. The playground is better now that we can climb the trees. You are basically in the jungle.”

Elka, Millie, Kahli and Sharn

“Because you can work on your climbing skills. You can see really far. You can watch what is happening in the games. We feel safe because we know that we should hold onto a thicker branch that can hold you.”

Ellie, Kiah, Mayson

Andrew Goelst: Work Health and Safety Coordinator

Venturing outdoors 3 Venturing outdoors 2 Venturing outdoors 1

Green Hearts Institute for Nature in Childhood

School playgrounds revert to good old days of creative play in southern Tasmania