Roger that.

As a professional working in Risk Management it’s not uncommon when speaking with parents of students attending programs to have conversations focused around what might be termed ‘the pointy end of the stick’; that is to use the metaphor of a stick, the sharp or risky end of the activity that could most likely lead to injury or harm.

As a parent myself, this thinking is of course understandable when we consider how general society has increasingly removed itself from direct contact with natural objects – such as sticks. Yet, more importantly this thinking is possibly a result of the increased media swirl of potentially dangerous objects or activities and the need to safeguard against such risks.

Of course, our capacity to manage or throw sharp sticks, from an evolutionary perspective has proven a fairly significant component to the history of human kind, as has the ability to use sharp objects to craft such sticks and the many other tools we have come to value as essential in modern society.

Within research, the role of risk and play is essential in human development. Pellegrini (2009), describes play as ‘the work of children which helps them develop intrinsic interests, learn how to make decisions, problem-solve, exert self-control, follow rules, regulate emotions, and develop and maintain peer relationships’.

Equally where a lack of opportunity to engage with risks in play exists, as noted by Eager & Little (2011) in their work into ‘Risk Deficit Disorder’ (Proceeding of IPWEA International Public Works Conference; Canberra, Australia), ‘a child is potentially more prone to problems such as obesity, mental health concerns, lack of independence, and a decrease in learning, perception and judgment skills, where risk is removed from play and restrictions are too high’.

This relationship between value and future utility balanced against the potential of injury or harm to a degree, rests at the heart of the work of risk management. In layman’s terms this is often seen as the relationship between our ‘appetite’ for risk (driven by our future need) and equally our understanding of the hazards we may need to navigate as we seek to control risks.

Within the work of The Outdoor Education Group these vital questions and our balance to ensure a safe learning environment, whilst achieving positive life affirming outcomes, are vital to supporting Real World Ready connections.

However, in truth our focus is not simply at keeping an eye at the pointy end of the stick. The questions we have learnt to ask instead are equally to ‘look up and out’. Before we even get to picking up the stick we’re focused on whose likely going to be holding it, for what reason and purpose. What experience do they have and need and most importantly how can we create an environment that allows them to play with the stick in a manner that is meaningful, memorable and transferable.

Of course, our programs are not all about sticks (though sometimes we do encourage shelter building). Many of the activities we facilitate for the 40,000 plus young people we support to connect to the natural landscape, themselves and with others, are in turn vehicles that enable the value of personal challenge, respect and responsibility to be realised through the direct experience.
To achieve this ‘up and out’ understanding in our risk management, OEG are engaged on a number fronts with new understandings in emergent risk identification through systems thinking approaches. Whilst a risk matrix allows us to consider potential risks and mitigating measures at one level, we are equally focused on how we monitor thresholds; where Seligmann (2014) notes ‘searching for patterns is the doorway to this brave new world, unplugged from the matrix’.
Through frames such as ‘Hierarchal Task Analysis’, OEG are constantly looking at the patterns that exists where contributing factors may interact to create an environment for incident or unsafe thresholds of practice.

Whilst this brave new world of risk management in the outdoors may at times look complex and vast, like the real world in which we operate, we are left with an intimate understanding of the relationship that exists between the natural hazards in the learning environments we explore and the importance of the risks so vital to a young person’s growth through play.

Paul Horton
Head of Quality Assurance and Risk Management

The Outdoor Education Group

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