Last week was a controversial time. Two situations arose that really got me thinking. Your thoughts and input is particularly welcomed on this post.

Firstly I’m on an emailing list for a group called OUTRES. This is a group of around 270 people who have an interest in outdoor education research. There are a lot of pracademics within the group. These are people with a practical background but who teach or lecture in some aspect of outdoor education.

The group has been very quiet recently. Whether it was because there was nothing to say or too many exciting things happening I’m not quite sure. Anyway suddenly a question appeared on the scene that got more emails flying around than pigeons at a bread fest.

The question asked “What are the most controversial issues in outdoor education?

The discussions and comments were wide-ranging and included: the “shallow rooted theoretical base” of outdoor education (OE); the predictability of outcomes in activities and lack of emergent learning; whether OE needs to be child-led or provider-led; inclusivity and identity within OE; how and if OE responds to climate change; what exactly is OE; the use of Western evaluation tools in non-Western countries; the challenges faced by OE becoming more mainstream education practice; standards in OE; the value of OE as a career choice; decreasing passion within OE; the separation of self from place; OE and thrill seeking; neo-experiential education; who needs to be licensed and badged; bridging the gap between research and practice; what is the outdoors?; who cares what the controversial issues are in OE?

All of the above are valid points and important issues. The emails were great to read. Yet, none of them jump out at me as truly controversial. Almost everyone agreed and saw the reasoning behind each question. I always think that controversy arises when there is a moral issue at stake which creates an emotional response. Often the arguments are between decisions and actions where one has to choose between what’s right and what’s right, rather than between what’s right and what’s wrong.

Pre-school children at an I Ur Och Skur school in Sweden
Second, via Lenore Skenazy’s Free Range Kids blog came a controversial story. This was the story of a 5 yr old boy who (purportedly) had climbed a little way up a tree at break time and refused to come down. The staff, following standard health and safety guidelines, retreated and one person watched discreetly from a distance to check he was okay. This may seem surprising to some people (including the UK tabloid press), but it is regarded as good practice. If an adult chases a child who’s running away or tries to forcibly remove a child from a situation which may create more danger by doing so, then patience and a watchful eye is a sensible option.

But the situation became more complex. A passerby (purportedly) noticed the child and decided that he needed rescuing. She jumped over a locked gate, failed to check with the school what was happening and then was impolite to a staff member who approached her. Thus a few days later, she was issued with a notice about trespassing on school property. And that’s when the stooshie began because the passerby took the story to the national tabloid press.

There were hundreds of responses on the Daily Mail website and tens of responses on Lenore’s blog. The school was completely shocked by the interest in the incident by the national press and stunned by the increasingly wilder interpretations of the story. It issued letters publicly on the matter to explain what had happened. I got “Twitter rapped” (Twapped!) for one tweet that flagged up the story. This involved a couple of people tweeting me and telling me off for considering the story as controversial.  In my opinion, a controversial issue is one there is a lot of public, prolonged and heated disagreement over a matter. I stand my ground!

This story immediately hit me on several emotional accounts. I found myself quite caught up in the story as I’ve had experience of all three situations.

Several weeks ago I rescued a boy of a similar age from a tree as I was passing by. I saw him up the tree, smiled and mentioned that he must be able to see lots. He shook his head and looked upset. So I asked him if he was okay. Again he shook his head. Then I checked to see if he was stuck and he nodded. So I offered to help him down. At this point he nodded so I went round to the other side of the fence and helped him by encouraging him to dangle his legs down and jump. I told him that my hands were ready to catch him should he fall. The boy jumped, landed and then rushed off home. I continued on my dog walk.

As a head teacher I had one child who moved from another school into Primary 7 with “trouble” tattooed on his forehead. He was very physically able, funny and smart. One break time he opted to get out of a “telling off” by climbing up a tree. By the time I arrived on the scene, he was almost at the top. Luckily he complied with my request to climb down and we quietly followed up the matter without any ado. However boy could have easily decided to stay up there for a while.

I also know what it is like to have tabloid press pass comment upon a school. I’ve had reporters hanging around outside school gates trying to eek responses out of parents on a particular matter. Fortunately, no parent was prepared to comment or had anything negative to say.

At any point my own actions and decisions in any of the above could have been interpreted as unacceptable and resulted in a controversy. Each incident creates an internal dilemma as my “What If…?” mindset kicks in and I begin to catastrophise. So for me, this story strikes at the heart of all the concerns, issues and angst that so many adults have about being responsible for children outside. Moving from the state of fear to freedom is a big step. How can we make this happen – or is that a controversial issue too?

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Lisa April 5, 2010 at 01:16

What a fascinating post! I get very defensive if anyone even tries to bring controversy to outdoor ed. You are so right about the difficulties of the move from the state of fear to freedom for our children. My oldest climbed a white pine the other day to the very top. Honestly, I couldn’t look, I had to walk away; but came back on her way down and applauded.



CreativeSTAR April 5, 2010 at 07:12

Thanks for your thoughts Lisa! You’ve touched on what I call the “Eek” factor. This is when a child does something that you find really hard to watch but you know you need to let them go ahead – meanwhile your brain is squeaking internally like a distressed hamster.

Oh yes – you’ve a super blog, btw


Christie - Childhood 101 April 15, 2010 at 11:43

Wow, they are really interesting scenarios and not ones which I have really considered (or come across in my teaching career). Definitely food for thought.


CreativeSTAR April 15, 2010 at 21:30

Thanks for your contribution Christie – I think the beauty of teaching is that every year I get faced with scenarios that are new to me! It makes the job interesting.


Unnur Henrys May 14, 2017 at 18:41

What a interesting read, and like the others that have commented on moving from fear to freedom I have taken few discussions with my colleagues and we have come to agreement to disagree and go outdoors on different days if we are not comfortable with each other’s views. I love to watch my class try to climb trees or big rocks but normally I would ask them if they feel save if the answer is yes then they have my approval 🌳🌲


Juliet Robertson May 14, 2017 at 20:26

Hello Unnur

What can also help this situation is an analysis of the accidents, first aid and near misses. Have there been any on your watch and what was involved? It is quite possible that such accidents and events happen equally on everyone’s patch.

Another consideration is asking children what they like to do outside… if tree and rock climbing feature then clearly these are much loved activities.

Thanks so much for your thoughts – Juliet


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