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Dignity of Risk

Every day we take risks. Some big. Some small. Risk is an inherent part of this thing we call life.

One of the things I love about what I do is permitting risk taking. I'd say encouraging risk taking but that's far too active a description for what is essentially doing very little: Being careful not to say "Be careful ..."

The children who come and experience our free play in the woods take all manner of risks throughout their time with us. They take physical risks galore as they stretch themselves and copy others. They take social risks as they build friendships and join in games that evolve before our very eyes. They also take emotional risks when standing up to people who might encourage them to do something they don't agree with. They assess the risk and make a decision based on their own assessment. It's phenomenally empowering for them and a delight for us to observe.

One of the things that we've always believed is that the woods are there for everyone to access at their level: The river doesn't judge you if you don't want to submerge yourself in its chilly waters; the trees aren't going to goad you into doing something you might regret or the rocks laugh when you fall over. With this in mind we believe that at Outdoor Cleghorn it doesn't matter who you are.

Dignity of Risk was a term coined in the 1970s by Robert Perske who rightly observed that while overprotection might often seem like an act of kindness it can prevent people from "becoming all they can become".

Young girl with Down syndrome sitting on an upturned bucket, whittling a stick with a fixed-blade knife in the woods.
Dignity of risk

This is our daughter Trudy. Trudy has Down syndrome and loves coming to our camps.

She, like everyone else, does exactly what she wants to do at the level that she feels she can. She takes the same risks as everyone else.

This year she noticed everyone taking turns to whittle and she thought she would like to have a go.

I showed her how to sit, how to hold the stick, how to hold the knife and what to do.

The stick was a bit old and not as green as it could have been but her sense of pride and satisfaction in achieving this little milestone was evident in her face. Affording her the dignity of doing something that is genuinely risky meant the world to her.

Perhaps the biggest gain, however, was in seeing everyone else as they observed her whittling.

Her willingness and desire to have a go; my willingness to let her, both made a statement. Both said "This girl can," and that is why affording her, like her typically developing peers, the ability to take such risks is so powerful.


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