What a pile of autumn leaves tells us about risk

Here’s a seasonal activity for you, with a hint – or more than a hint – of adventure: leaf-pile-diving.

That is one big pile of leaves, and those are some pretty adventurous dives. But the nice thing about leaf-diving is that it can be up-and-down-scaled, depending on the amount of leaves about, and the size and appetite for risk of the participants.

I have modest experience of the pursuit myself. Here’s the evidence (recorded exactly four years ago, in one of my local parks):

This pile – which took a couple of minutes to build – consisted mainly of leaves from London Plane trees. These are particularly large, firm, and crunchy. As a result, they have great impact absorbing qualities – plus they make a very satisfying sound when you land. I can recommend them.

In case you think this is all a bit adult-centric, I can confirm that my daughter has also enjoyed leaf diving:

My daughter diving on a leaf pile

Though I must confess I’d be a little nervious about letting her somersault off the top of a house. In fact, I’d be nervous about doing that myself, and so should anyone. But hey, some people get their kicks from leaping off rope swings into watering holes. Others get theirs from wearing weird suits and swooping through the air along mountainsides (those with no head for heights should look away now):

When people take part in risky activities, they can get things wrong – sometimes, catastrophically wrong. But what is the alternative to allowing people to make their own choices about the risks they take (so long as they are not illegal and don’t endanger others)? If we place any value at all in personal autonomy and freedom of action, then we have to give people that choice.

Indeed it is vital that we allow people that choice. We all have our risk thermostats. And finding out our personal risk thermostat setting is a very useful thing to know. What is more, no-one else can tell us where our own setting is. The only way we can find out is by taking risks, and learning for ourselves.

This goes for children, as for adults. Of course, children generally have less experience of the world, and of their own capabilities. So we do not expect them to take the same degree of responsibility as adults. But even young children need to learn their risk thermostat setting. Because one day, they won’t have any adults around to make the decisions for them. As someone once said to me about their teenage son: “I don’t want his first experience of managing risks to be when he gets behind the wheel of a car.”

Credits: Pop-up adventure play (for sharing the first video); My partner Kay (camera-person for the second vide0).

6 responses to “What a pile of autumn leaves tells us about risk

  1. I think mountain biking is a great way for children to learn about risk and get a sense of achievement. How about this American 4 year old on his first ride down a serious trail with his dad: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0qmQrEM5rVA “I did it, daddy”!

    P.S. Some wing-suit base jumpers have even higher settings on their risk thermostats – “and now it’s getting boring so we started playing around” – meaning flying close enough to drag their fingertips over the rock face at 100mph! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ttz5oPpF1Js

  2. Great point about the “risk thermostat”, Tim.  I have a relatively high risk thermostat and over the course of my life I’ve been involved in a range of relatively high risk recreational activities.  For example, I fish from a kayak in the open ocean in waters that have high populations of large sharks including great white sharks.

    Frankly, many people think I’m taking crazy risks to do so.  But I’m entirely comfortable with the risk from sharks (and I’ve seen sharks swim by me that are longer than my kayak) because I know that the actual risk to me from sharks is tiny: there has never been a kayak/shark fatality in Australia, and only a handful worldwide.

    Nevertheless, my chosen sport IS relatively high risk: the ocean is a potentially dangerous place for many reasons, not least because a small object like a kayak is hard for powerboat users to spot, especially in big swells.  Plenty of kayakers have been killed by powerboat accidents.  And there are all the other obvious risks – weather, waves, reefs, sinking, accidents, injuries, and so on.

    So while I have a high risk thermostat I minimise the risks by taking sensible precautions, over and above what I am legally required to do.  Where I kayak I’m legally required to carry a PFD 1 life jacket (but not to wear it); I must have an “inshore flare kit” which uses hand-held flares; an effective anchor; and an efficient bailing system.  But that’s all I have to do to be legal.

    I go much further, because I figure those bare minimums are insufficient considering the conditions I kayak in, and especially because I frequently kayak solo.  So I always wear the PFD (it’s no damn use if the PFD is on the kayak and I’m not!); I carry an EPIRB locator beacon; a hand-held waterproof marine VHF radio; waterproof marine GPS (plus back-up manual compass); an “offshore flare kit” with rocket flares; a comprehensive first aid kit; 4 litres of drinking water; food bars; and I have a hi-viz safety flag on a 4 foot mast.  My kayak is hi-viz orange.  

    I always tell people where i’m going and when I expect to be back.  I check in and out with the local sea-rescue group with my VHF radio.  I tether myself to the kayak with a quick-release system because if you fall out a kayak can drift much faster than you can swim, but you don’t want to be tangled in the tether if you roll (yes, I’ve fallen out, yes I’ve rolled the kayak).

    I guess the point that I’m getting at is that “high risk” is not the same as “stupid risk”, and that one only learns the difference through graduated exposure to risk over the course of one’s life.  And similarly, one only learns what one’s personal “risk thermostat” is by actually taking risks.  There are plenty of activities that fall beyond my “risk thermostat” – I’m fine with other people doing them if they choose to, but I choose not to.  My brother races motor cars; my sister has over 1500 parachute jumps under her belt; my father was an accomplished alpine mountaineer; fine – but those activities aren’t for me, because I know my own capabilities and my comfort zone.

  3. Duncan, Alec – thanks for the comments. Duncan -that’s a terrific video, I’m not sure how I’ve missed it. I do a bit of off-road biking myself, and the young lad’s competence shines through almost as much as his enthusiasm. The video reminds me of how I tried to get some air a few years back – just like he does a number of times – and ended up busting my shoulder. I also like the way the dad lets his son go first for a bit (some nice Vygotskian scaffolding right there).
    Alec – your experience is a good illustration of how knowledge of statistical realities can help to put the risk into context. The only thing I’d take exception to is your use of the word ‘minimise’. It’s a hobby horse of mine, because I hear the word a lot used in this context, and I don’t think it’s helpful. I’d argue that you’re not minimising the risks (in the sense of ‘reducing to an absolute minimum’). What would ‘minimising’ mean? It would mean things like having a friend/volunteer/qualified sea kayaker supervising, or having a speedboat lurking within visual contact, or perhaps having an airborne helicopter team on standby. You don’t have any of these (I take it). Through the measures you mention, you are definitely managing the risks. You may be reducing the risks (ie reducing the likelihood of an adverse outcome. But you are not minimising them. [*Gets off hobby horse.*]

  4. You are quite correct, Tim – my use of “minimise” is wrong; I should have said “reducing”. The things I do to reduce the risks make adverse outcomes less likely but one could certainly go further and truly “minimise” the risks.

    Much further – and many do. Maybe not the helicopter, but there are certainly plenty of kayakers who would consider my set-up inadequate, and that I’m taking crazy risks. I’m comfortable with it, but no doubt the people I know who have the minimum legal requirements feel comfortable with their own set-ups. I wouldn’t, but it’s none of my business. They are adults, they make their own decisions, and the only people they are putting at risk are themselves. No problems.

    This topic – kayak safety – is debated furiously on the various kayak fishing forums I belong to. Some people are outraged that we are subject to any regulation at all, arguing that if you can legally paddle a surfboard anywhere and any distance without there being any safety regulations it is ridiculous that we are required to meet safety standards designed for power craft and yachts. Myself, I think the regulations are not unreasonable – and I think that’s the majority view; most serious offshore kayak fishers I know carry more safety gear than the regulations require anyway. Others argue that we should have to be licensed, and have competency certification before we are allowed to kayak in open waters.

    The more rabid members of the ocean kayak fraternity (not kayak anglers – these are mainly long-distance paddlers) argue that only sit-in kayaks with full internal bulkheads and positive flotation even when severely holed should be allowed – which rules out 99% of all kayaks used by kayak anglers since we use sit-on-top kayaks almost exclusively, and for technical reasons it’s very difficult and expensive to make a sit-on-top kayak with internal bulkheads.

    I’ve been unable to find good stats on kayak-related fatalities in Australia. The best I can find is that there are “several deaths per year” Considering that there are probably hundreds of thousands of kayakers I think that suggests more regulation is unwarranted. Again, I’ve got no good stats on actual numbers, but one Australian kayak fishing forum I belong to has 11,000+ members, and that’s just kayak fishing, and only one of the many kayak fishing forums here.

    Some deaths are inevitable; so be it. Trying for “minimisation” to the point that there are no deaths at all is pointless and impossible. I know of at least one kayak-related death amongst my forum friends that no amount of regulation could possibly have prevented – he died of a heart attack. No wait – let’s require medical certification for kayakers!

  5. When I initially left a comment I appear to have clicked on the -Notify
    me when new comments are added- checkbox and now each time
    a comment is added I recieve four emails with the exact same comment.
    There has to be a means you can remove me from that service?

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