The influence of perceived risk on participation in outdoor recreation

There is growing anecdotal evidence that accidents and publicity associated with those accidents is having an influence on decisions to participate/not participate in outdoor recreation activities. There are, however, no empirical data to confirm or explain these trends. Understanding the influence of perceived risk in decision-making regarding participation in outdoor recreation is critical if New Zealand is to continue to encourage healthy outdoor leisure lifestyles and to experience the commensurate benefits associated with such activity.

The objectives of this research are:
1) Assess the influence of perceived risk on primary and intermediate school decisions regarding outdoor recreation activities for pupils.
2) Evaluate outdoor recreation providers views on the influence of perceived risk on participation programmes and services provided for pre-teen school children.
3) Understand the influence of perceived risk on parents’ decision making regarding their pre-teen children’s participation in outdoor recreation activities.

The results of this research provides data which improves our understanding of the variables which influence decision making regarding participation in outdoor recreation for pre-teen children in New Zealand. This improved understanding is of value in developing strategies which address the concerns that schools and parents have with regard to risk.


Podcast of the interview of Carolyn Deuchar about this project on Radio New Zealand (15 April 2012): 


Primary Contact: 
December 2010
December 2009
PDF icon RiskPerceptionSPARCFinalReport.pdf2.09 MB
Project Findings: 


Anecdotal evidence and several high-profile fatalities associated with outdoor recreation
have led some to believe that New Zealand parents and teachers are becoming more risk
averse. Outdoor education is, however, a formal part of the school curriculum under the
auspices of Education Outside the Classroom (EOTC). Furthermore, prior research has
shown that active participation in outdoor pursuits has significant benefits for participants.
Consequently, it is important to understand how risk is perceived by parents and teachers
and what influence it may be having on participation rates and programming. The
exploratory study presented here utilised online, self-reply questionnaires to solicit views
from teachers with responsibilities related to EOTC (n=276) and parents from primary and
intermediate school Boards of Trustees (BoT) (n=534). In addition, 11 semi-structured
telephone interviews were conducted with key informants from outdoor education
providers. Data from these instruments showed that BoT parents are more accepting of
outdoor education activities than might be presumed and do not have perceptions of risk
that appear elevated. EOTC teachers, on the other hand, have higher levels of perceived
risk. This is likely related to their professional roles and the fact that they have
responsibility for the safety of the children in their school when they are undertaking
outdoor education activities. As might be expected, BoT parents and EOTC teachers in rural
areas have lower levels of concern about risk for their children than do their urban
counterparts. Accidents and fatalities widely reported in the media were found to have
limited effects on participation. However, the data did suggest parental anxiety increased
after such incidents, but the research also showed that very few BoT parents respond by
preventing their children from participating. Schools are more likely to reduce programmes
and the data showed a small proportion of schools have responded to incidents in this
way. Outdoor education professionals will be reassured that BoT parents appear to
respond to publicised tragedy in the outdoors with a good deal of common sense. There is
no doubt that there are isolated cases of individual BoT parents and, sometimes, whole
schools cancelling outdoor education trips for children. These are seized on by the media
as documented proof of “wrapping children in cotton wool”, “paranoid parenting”, and
other phenomena implying parents or teachers are risk averse to an unhealthy degree. This
study provides empirical data showing that most BoT parents and EOTC teachers do not
respond in this way.


Keywords: Risk, schoolchildren, outdoor recreation, outdoor education, EOTC, Board of


It is widely understood that involvement in outdoor recreation and sport activities provides
significant benefits for individuals, communities and nations (Kane & Tucker, 2007; Powell,
2007). As a consequence, many nations, including New Zealand, have a long tradition of
including outdoor education as part of the school curriculum (Zink & Boyes, 2006). Such
activities (which occur under the classification of Education Outside the Classroom or EOTC
in New Zealand) seek to foster learning and enthusiasm for outdoor recreation in school-
age children and for those children to reap the rewards physically, psychologically and
socially of regular engagement in physical activity in the outdoors.

Despite increasing investment in the sector (particularly in promoting physical activity in
the outdoors) in New Zealand (SPARC, 2008), a wide range of indicators show that New
Zealanders are becoming increasingly sedentary. These include increasing levels of obesity
and obesity related health issues (NORR, 2008), decreasing numbers of children walking to
school (Ministry of Transport, 2008) and an increasing proportion of leisure time spent
inactive involved in past-times such as television watching, computer and mobile-phone
usage and listening to music (Vandelanotte, Sugiyama, Gardiner, & Owen, 2009).

It is also relevant to note that New Zealand promotes itself internationally as an ‘adventure
capital’ with exciting and adventurous outdoor activities and opportunities as a central
part of the ‘Kiwi lifestyle’. This reputation has value from a tourism perspective (Cloke &
Perkins, 2002) and also contributes to New Zealanders’ self-perception and national pride.
What is becoming clear is that there is a growing discrepancy between New Zealand’s
external and self-image as a healthy, active and adventurous nation and the reality of a
country whose population is dominated by urban dwellers with predominantly sedentary
and inactive lifestyles (Eames, 2008).

There have, in recent years, been a number of high profile accidents and fatalities
associated with outdoor recreation, outdoor education and adventure tourism activities.
These include the Mangatepopo river canyoning fatalities (Vass, 2009), the death of a
university student involved in bridge swing activities in the Manawatu Gorge (Miller, 2009),
the death of an English tourist who was participating in river-boarding activities in the
Kawarau Gorge (Williams, 2008), and a number of injuries and fatalities associated with
alpine and snow related activities (Lynch, 2009). These and other accidents appear to be
having an impact on the willingness of both New Zealand schools and the parents of New
Zealand schoolchildren to allow students to participate in off-site recreation and outdoor
education visits, field-trips and school camps. At least one well established outdoor
education provider reported a significant number of cancellations and associated financial

difficulties as a consequence of the Mangatepopo tragedy (Education centre solves cash
flow woes, 2008).

Perceptions of risk (see Appendix 6 for a more in-depth review of the literature on outdoor
education and risk) have long been recognised as an important influence on the decision-
making of potential participants in recreational activities (Dickson, Chapman, & Hurrell,
2000). Perceived risk is an individual’s subjective evaluation of the characteristics and
severity of risk that exists at a given moment (Priest & Baillie, 1987). The perceived risk can
be close to the real risk when an individual is experienced and/or particularly well
informed. However, a perceived risk may be far removed from the real risk and it is this
scenario (when perceived risk is low, but real risk is high) which most frequently leads to
accidents, injuries and fatalities (Haddock, 1983). What is most important to recognise is
that it is the perceived risk as opposed to the actual or real risk that is ultimately used to
make decisions regarding involvement in outdoor recreation situations.

Parents appear to be becoming more risk averse and cite safety concerns as an important
issue in terms of allowing their children to participate in recreation activities, walking or
cycling to school and playing outside unsupervised (Carver, Timperio, & Crawford, 2007). It
is clear, however, that risk is an inherent part of outdoor recreation. Confronting the risks
and managing these are part of the appeal for participants testing themselves in
challenging environments (Davidson, 2008).

A range of research on outdoor pursuits that are inherently adventurous (and therefore
have risks for participants) has shown that such activities can be powerful learning
experiences. As a consequence, adventurous nature-based recreational activities have
been widely utilised within the New Zealand school EOTC curriculum (Gair, 1997; Hirsch,
1999; Mortlock, 2001). Teachers and outdoor education leaders attempt to create
situations that move students to the outer boundary of their ‘comfort zone’ so there is a
match between task difficulty and participant competence (Haddock, 1993). The outcome
of such experiences can lead to improved self-confidence, self-efficacy and potentially
transfer to other situations in participant’s lives (Priest, 1999). The natural environment is
the most common setting where such activities are conducted because it provides a
degree of challenge through the nature of the terrain (or water), its inherent uncertainty,
and because participants are generally unfamiliar with it.

Despite a sound understanding of the benefits of risk, outdoor education and adventure
and New Zealand schools’ curriculum requirement for EOTC, there is no empirical research
that explores the influence of perceived risk on decision-making regarding participation in
outdoor education activities for younger New Zealanders. There is anecdotal evidence of
reduced participation as a consequence of high-profile accidents associated with outdoor
adventure pursuits. Popular press articles (e.g. Kenworthy, 2010; Wong, 2005) suggest that

New Zealand society is becoming less tolerant of risk. With regard to schoolchildren,
parents and teachers are the key decision-makers with regard to student participation in
outdoor education. As a consequence, this study explored the perception of each group of
the risks associated with outdoor education and determined how these affected
participation. This information makes an important contribution to the understanding of
decision-making, the influence of perceived risk, and participation in outdoor education for
school age children. The data produced from this research will improve the understanding
of these factors and can be utilised to inform decision-making regarding management and
promotion of active and healthy lifestyles for New Zealand children.

Research Objectives

The objectives of this research were:

1. To assess the influence of perceived risk on primary and intermediate schools’
decisions regarding outdoor recreation/education activities for pupils.
2. To evaluate outdoor recreation/education providers’ views on the influence of
perceived risk on participation in programmes and services provided for pre-
teenage schoolchildren.
3. To understand the influence of perceived risk on parents’ decision-making
regarding their pre-teen children’s participation in outdoor recreation/education
4. To provide information which will assist SPARC in developing strategies to address
the needs of schools and outdoor recreation/education providers in dealing with
risk, risk management, and communication and promotion strategies related to
perceptions of risk associated with outdoor recreation/education.
5. To provide research to support the development of strategies to encourage and
support younger New Zealanders to adopt healthy, active leisure lifestyles.