Nature Adventures for the Risk-Averse

Have a Safe Day on train station announcement board
“Have a safe day!” At Fairfield Metro-North Station by Protopian Pickle Jar (2015)

I have a voice in the back of my head. I think Freud might call it the “superego.” It’s the little voice that shouts:
“Don’t run in the hall!”
“You’ll poke an eye out!”
“If you open the drawer, something may jump out and bite you!”
“Someone’s going to end up crying!”

This voice is actually very useful. It keeps me driving the speed limit, wearing appropriate clothing for the weather and helps me maintain my physical awareness of my surroundings so I don’t fall into holes or get eaten by predators. In short, it helps keep me safe.

I don’t know how much the strength of my superego owes to parental messages I internalized as a kid or to my temperamental preference for risk-aversion. (Probably both. This requires further study.)

“Risk-aversion” is a description of behavior in economics and psychology, the upshot of it being that risk-averse individuals prefer a predictable outcome over a potentially better (more beneficial/greater utility), but less certain outcome. Most of the studies seem to assess the willingess (or not) to risk losing money in gambling activities, but this willingness to engage in potentially “dangerous” activities is also a factor.

At any rate, when I’m in charge of children’s health and well-being, my protective instincts kick into overdrive. My aversion to danger (or my perception of danger) remains high. My superego voice becomes my actual voice.

As a Teva educator, this was both a strength and a liability. When taking children into the woods, it is important to be aware of the many physical mishaps that you may encounter. These include tick bites, hypothermia, dehydration, being whacked in the head by a rock or stick tossed by a hyperactive child, falling from a height or having an allergic reaction.

As Teva educators, we are trained in the prevention of these possibilities. By wearing proper shoes and clothing (hats, layers, rain gear, tuck your pants into your socks! By carrying a first aid kit and walkie-talkie to summon a medic. By carrying a sufficient amount of water on in your backpack. By enforcing various rules about respecting the forest (Don’t throw stuff. Someone might be living where it lands), respecting other members of the group (If you use that stick for anything other than a walking stick, it will go back into the forest), and your group leader (If I tell you NOT to do something, it is for YOUR safety and well-being!). By having access to an epi-pen and benadryl for kids with known allergies.

On the flip-side, it is also important to let kids explore and experience consequences of their actions. Especially when the consequences are unpleasant, but not necessarily dire. How will a kid know that balancing on a log in a puddle may result in wet socks unless you let her try it? How will a kid find out that climbing on lichen-covered rocks may be slippery and result in ripped pants, but can be incredibly fun if you do it with care? What about touching coals from a fire that has just been banked? (Maybe use tongs.)

My challenge as an educator is assessing both the probability of an event and the general magnitude of the “badness” of an event that might occur, and what (if any) precautions are necessary.
(Legal folks may recognize this balancing act as Judge Learned Hand’s formula in the calculus of negligence).

For example, wet socks and splinters are likely, unpleasant but not seriously dangerous. A kid falling off of a cliff is very unlikely, but invariably fatal. For the first, we tell the kids to bring an extra pair of socks and might have to make a stop by the medic on the way to snack for splinter removal. The latter, God forbid!

Handling my own preparedness for the stuff that falls along the continuum in-between is a continuing process for me, as I balance my own native aversion to danger with the opportunity for my students to explore and learn. The age group of kids I have taken into the woods have been 5th-7th graders. They have at least a somewhat-developed sense of self-preservation and classroom-based conditioning to follow procedures. (Granted, there are always kids like the one who managed to climb a tree and fall out of it, breaking his arm, while I was dealing with another issue in the group.)

My comfort-level with increasing the amount of freedom I allow my students has grown in proportion to both my confidence as an educator and my increasing familiarity with the trails. However, compared with what some of my colleagues allow their group to handle, I’m still incredibly risk-averse.

After spring Teva, I headed out to New Haven to meet up with a friend. Another woman in her office asked me what I had been doing when I explained I had been working as an environmental educator.

I replied nonchalantly, “Running up mountains with 5th graders in the woods. It’s a lot of fun.”

“That sounds terrifying,” she responded.

I paused for a moment. “Yes,” I agreed, smiling ruefully. “If you think about it, it is kind of terrifying.”

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