Risk in Outdoor Activities: The Perception, the Appeal, the Reality

Article excerpt

Abstract

The existence of risk is a readily accepted in many outdoor and experiential programs. This paper seeks to explore, to raise questions and to encourage discussion about what may influence our perceptions of risk, the reasons why people may pursue risk and lastly what the real level of physical risk is within outdoor programs. The first two questions give rise to further questions about how we define risk and thus, how best to assess and manage risk. The latter point is covered through an analysis of the available accident and incident data which highlights the need for a more extensive and coordinated effort to clearly identify the real level of physical risk involved in outdoor programs.

Introduction

* The perception: Why might the public consider abseiling to be a riskier activity than rugby union or netball?

* The appeal: What is it that leads people to participate in activities that have a higher perceived risk?

* The reality: What evidence is there that outdoor pursuits conducted in outdoor programs are in fact riskier than popular sporting activities?

"Risk plays about as pivotal a role in experiential education as oxygen does in sustaining the human body" (Liddle, 1998, p. 61). So begins the editor's comments in an edition of the Journal of Experiential Education that focuses upon Fisk management. Liddle goes on to ask the reader to consider the premise that "risk taking is not only critical to the learning process but is also essential to the maintenance of the human spirit" (Liddle, 1998, p. 61), thus justifying the role of experiential educators to "create" situations where risk may occur. In two short paragraphs Liddle has moved risk into the realm of a necessity for survival of the soul, the body and the profession. Yet, what if we don't like risks? How does the experiential educator "create opportunities for clients where they face the unknown and persevere despite the perceived potential for significant loss" (Liddle, 1998, p. 61), especially if my sense of loss differs from yours? Who says that the dominant paradigm, as reflected in Liddle's comments, is representative of the population world-wide?

This paper seeks to begin to answer three questions related to risk. Firstly, what influences our perception of risk. Secondly, why do we take risk?, and finally, what are the real risks involved in participating in outdoor and experiential programs? In an explicit attempt to question the status quo the first question is considered from the perspective of industries, other than the outdoor and experiential, where they are involved in huge risk assessment, management and communication processes. The second question is addressed from two diverse views that parallel the nature versus nurture discourse, i) the possibility of a genetic predisposition to risk-taking, and ii) the potential roles that the media plays in our perception, pursuit and predisposition to risk. The third question, that of the real level of risk within outdoor programs, is considered in light of two sources of data on accidents and incidents, the National Database of Accidents and Incidents in Outdoor Programs maintained by The Safety Network (The Safety Network, 2000) and the NSW Youth Sport Injury Report (North Sydney Area Health Service, 1997).

The following discussion deliberately seeks to draw on material from outside the mainstream of outdoor and experiential education as a means to reflect upon commonly held views and practices. These materials have been deliberately targeted to explore the knowledge and insights gained from other disciplines and thus offer an alternate perspective on risk and risk taking to assist in broadening our understanding.

Perceptions of Risk

The edge is not the limit, just the start"

T-shirt slogan

What do the following have in common?

* a women in her 60's taking up play writing

* a newly married couple starting a family

* a person who gives up a full time job to take up freelance work

* an academic challenging the dominant paradigm

* a rock-climber

* a young person having unprotected sex

* a teenager sailing unassisted around the world

All these people, in a broad definition of risk, may be considered risk takers. …