Encouraging Risk in a Risk Adverse World

 “It's the heart afraid of breaking that never learns to dance. It's the dream afraid of waking that never takes the chance. It's the one who won't be taken, who cannot seem to give, and the soul afraid of dyin' that never learns to live.” -Amanda McBroom, The Rose

Ever since the arrival of my daughter, my ears have been primed to pick up on the conversations and behaviors other parents are modeling for their children. Lately, it feels like more and more of these conversations are geared toward coaxing children away from taking risks. There are the well-known fears to which many a parent can speak to: gangs, drugs, perilous streets, and so forth. Yet, it seems as if we are moving in the direction of proclaiming things fearful that past generations simply considered a part of growing up. Riding a bike to school, swinging to soaring heights only to jump off, and even the ability to be able to roam the neighborhood with a group of friends has been traded in for the “safety” of our children.

Earlier this month I came across a blog titled “An Itemized Tour of the Most Terrifying Playground in the World. EVERYBODY PANIC!!!”(1). The author takes readers through a point-by-point list of, as she states, “the stressful aspects of this park that brought out the neurotic parent in me.” I am sympathetic in the sense that there were a few design elements that could stand to be redone. On the whole, however, I was troubled by this post.

The post speaks not only to design elements that cause “stress” in parents, but of an underlying fear that our children will be hurt, abducted, or meet some other undesirable fate while on the playground. As an advocate for playgrounds and outdoor play in general, it is alarming to see the rates at which people agree with the sentiment that playspaces should be made less risky. By no means do I wish to see anyone’s child get hurt badly, but will make the case that if you are always there to catch your child before they fall, they will never learn to brace themselves for the impact. This is as true for the tumbles they will take on the playground, as it is for the ones that await them as adults.

In considering the factors that have contributed to the cultural shift in our perception of risk, the media has played a significant role. As my colleague Amy Dickinson notes, “It is difficult enough being a parent, you are literally responsible for someone else’s life. When you couple that responsibility with the fear created by the media, it is easy to see why more parents are becoming risk-adverse.” Along with the cultural shift away from risk there has also been a shift toward increased structured enrichment activities for children. We are living in an society where we feel as if we are doing wrong by our children if we don’t fill every opportunity with a life enhancing experience.

However, these enrichment or structured activities often come with predefined rules and expected outcomes that further limit children’s ability to take risks. It is in our attempts to protect and raise children ready to tackle the 21st  century that we have inadvertently taken away one of the best learning opportunities: space for children to challenge themselves, take risks, and acquire vital problem-solving skills. The need for constant protection of our children speaks to our society’s inability to simply let our children fail at anything, no matter how trivial. It is inevitable that children will encounter obstacles in life. It is through risk taking that children develop the capacity to think creatively and develop solutions.

While I passionately believe that there is a need to grant children further access to opportunities that promote exploration and risk-taking, I do not suggest completely casting them out to fend for themselves. It remains the role of parents and caregivers to provide support for our children, keeping in mind that support may also mean allowing children to make their own choices.

One additional challenge that parents face as they consider how much risk to provide children is a lack of a defined standard. The Play Safety Forum offers one option, stating in their position statement that
“Children need and want to take risks when they play. Play provision aims to respond to these needs and wishes by offering children stimulating, challenging environments for exploring and developing their abilities. In doing this, play provision aims to manage the level of risk so that children are not exposed to unacceptable risks of death or serious injury”(2).T

he position statement further offers that “In any human activity, there is an element of risk. Three factors are central to determining whether or not the level of risk is acceptable or tolerable:

  • The likelihood of coming to harm,
  • The severity of that harm, and
  • The benefits, rewards or outcomes of the activity."

While this position statement may not eradicate the fears of the most protective of parents, it certainly gives us a starting point as we consider when and where to grant freedoms to our children. It should not be overlooked that adults are defined as such because they have matured and developed over time, while children are in a constant state of growth cognitively, physically, and emotionally. If we truly want to see our children develop into independent, creative, and able beings, it may be wiser not to cushion their experiences but to allow them to learn from them instead.


1.  Stimeyland. (2012, January 8). An itemized tour of the most terrifying playground in the world. Evereybody panic!!!  Retrieved from http://www.stimeyland.com/2012/01/itemized-tour-of-most-terrifying.html.
2. Play England, Play Safety Forum. (2002). Managing Risk in Play Provision:  A Position Statement. Retrieved from http://www.playengland.org.uk/media/120462/managing-risk-play-safety-forum.pdf.

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Additional benefits of free or unstructured play include learning the abilities to:
-imagine and create
-accept and provide praise and criticism
-evaluate and mitigate risk
-create, follow and enforce rules
-discover one's own strengths and weaknesses
-discover and appreciate the strengths and weaknesses of others
-have fun

It is ironic that I read this article today, on the same day that NPR is looking for individuals to interview regarding 'boomer parents advocating on behalf of young adult children, calling up to negotiate better benefits, protest a poor evaluation, etc.' It seems that sheltering our children does not end at adulthood.

Amy- I couldn't agree more play provides children multiple benefits which I have written about in earlier posts. It is interesting that for all the good we hope to be doing for our children we often take away the most basic opportunities for healthy development by not allowing them to simply be children.

I have a 3yr old myself and could really relate to this article. Well written.

So well stated! I would love to see this article printed in newspapers where it would reach a broad audience.

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