Thoughts on saying “no” (in OEd).

One of the questions raised from this weekend’s MA in Outdoor Education course was “Do you allow a young person to say “no” to an activity? Challenge by choice!”

I listened to my fellow students articulate their opinions with strong justification for their decision(s) as to why they would allow a young person to fully opt-out but I wasn’t convinced with their arguments.

To explain the terminology: Challenge by Choice is a concept in which people are empowered to decide whether to participate in an activity. The leader and others in a group are expected to respect anyone’s right to sit out or to opt for a personalized level of engagement. (

I was quite adamant against it, but after reflection, I’m not so sure now.

Firstly, there are the practical and safety considerations of young people not fully participating and sitting out. If there is a financial commitment, then this would be wasted and thirdly (but not lastly), how do they know if they’re not going to like an activity unless they experience it – had they tried it before, then they might fail (in this instance) to learn that situations are often very different from one another!

Whilst I agree young people should be allowed autonomy over decision making, I am conflicted at the thought of fully ‘opting out’ at such a young age (under 16 years old).

  • Firstly, there is the argument of experience and ‘trying anything once’. Who knows? you might like it…
  • Secondly, there is the argument of resilience. Everyone will experience unpleasant moments at some point within their life, maybe a situation they can not avoid, this will help develop their understanding of their resilient levels.
  • Thirdly, learning occurs more robustly if the young person has control and choice over the experience. If they don’t learn to make their own decisions and gave confidence when (and how) to say “no”, what issues will this cause in their future?

On the other hand,

  • Firstly, what will that experience contribute to their self-actualisation? Will it be positive or have a detrimental effect?
  • Secondly, resilience can be developed from many areas within our lives and experiences, does it need to be done outdoors?
  • Thirdly, if the student doesn’t know what they are supposed to learn, then they can learn misconceptions…

I’ve still not found a conclusive answer that satisfies me. It wasn’t until adulthood when I realised just how I could draw from the experiences as young person and apply to adulthood – for example, I was never allowed to ‘opt-out’ of activities whilst in school despite how much I protested (I had to do them, then the detention afterwards for refusing!) and I felt this put me in good sted and created a more resilient person with the mindset that difficult situations often don’t last long. Sadly though, it made me very compliant to authority and others of influence, even when their motivations and viewpoints were not aligned with mine; I felt I wouldn’t have been put in situations had I developed, at a young age, the ability to strongly refuse – this was a lesson I learnt within my thirties instead.

However, I can see why the choice to fully opting-out is not always appropriate. Had I be given the choice to do so, I feel I would have been lazier and without a motivational attitude to areas of my life I enjoyed experiencing in my youth because I was forced to partake in them. I felt my youth was more colourful and adventurous than it would have been otherwise…

So, back to the original question, “Do you allow a young person to say “no” to an activity? Challenge by choice!”

I think, whilst on the long drive home from university, I came up with a woolley conclusion for myself – I would allow them to fully opt-out if I felt it was detrimental to their well-being or development (always a tough judgement call) or no learning would occur at all by them participating. Also, if I felt their participation would cause risk to themselves or others in the group.

I certainly would adapt the activity to be inclusive within reason… however, my first choice would be “everyone partakes” in some form. After all, for a young person, they are often fortunate to experience an adventurous activity for a fraction the cost an adult might. Whilst they would have no interest in the financial cost of things at their age, they certainly will as an adult!

So, no to them saying “no” really within reason. Sometimes parts of our life are decisions we can’t opt-out of, we can certainly try to change them but often we need to draw on resilience and strengths learnt whilst young to participate in the complexities of adulthood (boo!)… at least, from my perspective and experience, it certainly feels that way…

– Just Joanne

4 thoughts on “Thoughts on saying “no” (in OEd).

  1. I definitely feel they should be gently encouraged, but if they still don’t want to do something, be allowed to say no. After years of seeing kids in tears on climbing walls, trapezes etc on field trips – and being shamed by some instructors 😡 — I really don’t believe they should be forced into situations (unless it’s for safety reasons, obviously).
    I know there are things I choose not to do (driving on motorways these days is a big one for me) and I wouldn’t thank anyone for trying to force me to do that! If I ever have to do it, I’ll deal with it then.
    I once had a boy in my class (year six) completely frozen at the top of a trapeze. No amount of coaxing could get him to move. In the end, I told the instructors to just haul him off it, finger nails tearing at the telegraph pole in the process.. I dread to think of how he’ll process that – he’ll certainly remember it for the rest of his life.
    I also firmly believe that saying no is a skill that needs to be learnt. Before long, my year six kids would be under pressure from drugs, sex and possibly worse. ‘No’ needs to be something they can say, and mean it.


    • I think prior experiences count a lot in our decisions when working with young people; I have (touch wood) not had many experiences where the young person has had a very negative experience, such as yours – but this could be partly due to working with older ones more so than younger maybe?? The older ones, if they choose not to do something, tend to avoid by other means – lack of kit, “sickness”, acting out rather than saying no. After reading your experiences, we should be teaching them “no” from a very early age so they are more outspoken in young adulthood? Thanks for your insight and shared experience, it has given me a lot to think about!


  2. Challenge by Choice was originally championed by Rohnke (1984) and it was about empowering people to control the degree of challenge they engage with. The purpose was never to encourage them to not take part in the activity but to control the level of challenge that they have within the activity. Not taking part means that learning is not possible and therefore should be discouraged (Priest & Gass, 1997) 🙂


    • Thanks for the clarification. This is something I think the entire group weren’t fully clear about and we all seemed to come to different conclusions as to what it meant. It seems like a recent concept but 1984! Wow!

      I’m learning how to speak out more, even if it disagrees with another’s thought or opinion – this is something I was told I need to work on! I thought putting it out on wordpress would help me become more comfortable with that; might add a few more nonsensical ramblings to build on that! LOL


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