Friday, 10 October 2014

The Risk of No Risk

We all remember the thrill of successfully performing an ‘apple turnover’ on the monkey bars, balancing on a slippery log across a creek, or negotiating a huge jump out of a tree. This was a normal part of childhood for many of us.
Something changed dramatically between the childhoods of just forty years ago and those of today. Perhaps it was the increased awareness of injury prevention in workplaces, the rise of litigation as a result of injuries, or the change in the notion of duty of care – or all of these factors and more. Whatever the cause, the outcome appears to have been the proliferation of risk-averse playspaces in the Western world.

In more recent times however, we’ve seen the emergence of a more balanced approach – playspaces that strive to find a balance between managing the risk to prevent serious injury, and promoting important risk-taking and free play. In this blogpost we look at why risk is important, how adults and children manage risk, and how we can give our children the opportunity to benefit from risk.

Risk in play

When researchers observe preschool children playing outdoors, they see children deliberately exposing themselves to risk (for example, playing at heights and high speeds). Most play does not involve risk, but it is important to remember that risky play is a normal, and even an important part of play, for all ages of children. 

Why risk is important

There is a wealth of research indicating that risk plays a necessary role in children’s development. Basically, children gain social, emotional and physical benefits from engaging in experiences that involve uncertainty and challenge. When children feel secure in themselves to act on their curiosity and try to meet challenges they’ve chosen, they gain confidence. This is known as the ‘risk-taker’s advantage.’

The process of encountering, and responding to challenge is vital for child development. What risk-taking does for children is give them the opportunity to test themselves against their environment and experience feelings of autonomy, competence and relatedness (to each other and the world around them). These outcomes are vital to children’s health and wellbeing. The nature of play can be compared to an artist’s creativity, play is a creative process and so cannot have success or failure, it either has opportunity to exist or does not. Through play, especially when it involves some level of challenge, children are learning to deal with uncertainty and build the emotional and mental resources to become resilient and happy adults. Isn’t that what all parents want for their children?

One critical question the theorists ask is: How can children learn the limits of their abilities if they’re only offered activities with no risk of failure? A related question is: If children are never allowed to feel discomfort, how will they develop physical skills, learn to regulate their emotions, be vulnerable and connected in relationships, or keep trying when something is difficult?

With physical harm (e.g a grazed knee) there is instantaneous, visible feedback for the child. They can use this valuable information to learn from. This can be a fast learning opportunity, though it may take a few slips and grazes to realise that running on wet bitumen is possibly not the best idea! What happens for the skills and attributes that require opportunities over much longer periods of time in order to develop? 

Consider one such attribute: self-efficacy. People with well developed self-efficacy ‘foster intrinsic interest and deep engrossment in activities. They set themselves challenging goals and maintain strong commitment to them. They heighten and sustain their efforts in the face of failure. They quickly recover their sense of efficacy after failures or setbacks. They attribute failure to insufficient effort or deficient knowledge and skills which are acquirable. They approach threatening situations with assurance that they can exercise control over them. Such an efficacious outlook produces personal accomplishments, reduces stress and lowers vulnerability to depression.’ (Bandura) This is surely what we would like to support in our children. Bandura goes on to state that the most effective way of helping develop self-efficacy is via mastery experiences. He warns that only experiencing easy success is detrimental – and that it is critical for people to have to persevere when overcoming challenges. This is exactly what great play provides – a wonderful balance with a variety of challenges!

We are concerned that the detrimental effects of unchallenging play environments, and overly-cautious adult supervision could be contributing to the lack of resilience and mental health issues that research indicates are on the increase. Problems associated with not being able to develop attributes that are developed over a long time period, such as self-efficacy, may not be immediately visible. There is an argument that they are possibly more debilitating than difficulty with skills which are more visible and easier to see develop, such as fine motor skills. This would logically mean that we are required to have careful thought and consideration about the opportunities we provide for challenge for our children. We need to think more long term than politicians tend to – not just while the child is in our immediate care (our ‘term of office’), but how the decisions we make while they’re in our care will impact them as they grow and develop into teens and beyond.

How adults tend to manage risk

Of course, injury prevention underpins our efforts to keep children safe. The problem is achieving the right balance. Emerging research says over-restricting children’s outdoor risky play actually hinders their development, and that adult concerns about children’s safety are the most significant influence on children’s access to free play.

Interestingly, in one US study the educators expressed that outdoor play areas had become unchallenging and uninteresting to children – and some children had started using equipment in unsafe ways in order to maintain challenge! Children have a biological need for challenge, and it is important that we provide appropriate challenge.

As much as we’d love to blame technology for children spending less time playing outdoors, and there is definitely an impact seen due to the increased use of technology, the generational trends actually suggest that children’s dwindling interest in outdoor play is influenced largely by parental and societal concerns. The truth is, some parents’ and educators’ perceptions of risk and uncertainty, combined with the ways they model risk management, probably have considerable impact on the ways their children take and understand risks for themselves.

Backing up that theory, one research study looked at two types of parents. There was one group of people who had experienced significant risk in their lives and another group that had led relatively risk-free lives. The researchers asked questions to find out how each of these parents approached risk with their children, aged between five and 17 years.

The pattern that emerged was that parents who had experienced risks themselves found it easier to balance safety and adventure. They could give their children the chance to manage uncertainty and risks in everyday life, focusing on the benefits of risk taking to develop life skills. The other group of parents focused more on protecting their children from harm and preventing them from making mistakes. The problem with this approach, of overly focusing on ‘protection from harm’ is that, as Michael Follett has recently been talking about with many WA educators - if we are not allowing challenge, we are not building competence, and if we are not building competence, what are we building? The uncomfortable answer to this, is incompetence. This is not what we want for our children.

How children manage risk

The research suggests that children understand and regulate risk when they have opportunities to participate in challenging play.

During an observational study, one researcher noted that children appear to understand their own competency and the level of risk they are comfortable with. They modulate their risky play to these internal boundaries. They also understand and accept that their peers have different levels of comfort and ability.

When they talked about injuries, children viewed minor injuries as a way to show that they had taken risks (a positive), but there was also an understanding that too many injuries indicated incompetence, carelessness or clumsiness (a negative). The upshot is, most children seem to have their own regulatory system for maintaining risks and injuries at manageable levels. Opportunities to continually develop this skill is vital – especially for when they reach adolescence and adulthood.

Children in general understand their personal safety and see themselves as competent at managing their own safety. Research has also shown that children feel that they, and not their parents, are primarily responsible for their own safety; although this is a big variation on how the parents see it!

Children at play can expose themselves to a level of challenge that they think is just beyond their capability. If, over time, they have been allowed to build a good understanding of the nature of their current capabilities and understand the nature of the risk they are exposing themselves to, they show competent strategies for mitigating harm. Experience provides this understanding. They show awareness of potential dangers and adjust their activities accordingly. Importantly, they can understand their own, and their playmates’, capabilities and skills, which allows them to support each other’s risk engagement and safety.

Without this opportunity as a child, the impact is seen when they are older. Judith Hackett, chair of the UK Health and Safety Executive has stated that employers are concerned that young people entering the workspace increasingly do not know how to identify risk, manage it or have the confidence to deal with anything that involves uncertainty. Anecdotal evidence suggests that there are similar trends here in Australia. There is an opportunity (or should we say ‘responsibility’?) to reverse this trend.

How to go forward

How do we strike that magical balance between risk management and facilitating healthy risk?

At Nature Play Solutions, we have always used a risk-benefit approach, as we believe that it is important to eliminate hazards (i.e. a source of harm that is not obvious to the child, such as a broken railing, and where any risk does not outweigh the potential benefits); but not to eliminate all risks. The benefits that come from appropriate risk and challenge must be considered alongside the dangers of risk. The (often long-term) risk of not having the ‘risky opportunity’ or challenge must be considered. A good play experience is one in which children are allowed to recognise and evaluate challenges, and act in a way that is not necessarily dangerous, but may still involve an element of risk. Again, to quote Michael Follett, we need to allow children to play in a way that they can ‘move beyond what is already known and easily accomplished’ to ensure that they continue to grow and develop; socially, emotionally and physically.

Our experience with the OPAL program, as well as results from research, suggests that one of the best ways to address this, and to provide a balance for children, is to give educators and parents the opportunity to explore and share their understandings of risk, and decide what they want for the children in their care. Educators and parents usually have common goals for children: health, happiness and resilience. The pathways there are what’s up for negotiation. Let’s give it some thought and all try and take the path that provides long term benefits for our children.

Visit our website to see our portfolio of playspaces.


  1. Mariana Brussoni, Lise L. Olsen, Ian Pike and David A. Sleet. Optimal Child Development (2012) Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health, 9, 3135-3148.
  2. Anita Nelson Niehues, Anita Bundy, Alexander Broom, Paul Tranter (2013) Parents’ Perceptions of Risk and the Influence on Children’s Everyday Activities, J Child Fam Stud.
  3. Anita Nelson Niehues, Anita Bundy, Alex Broom, Paul Tranter, Jo Ragen & Lina Engelen (2013) Everyday uncertainties: reframing perceptions of risk in outdoor free play, Journal of Adventure Education & Outdoor Learning, 13:3, 223-237.
  4. Bandura, A. (1994). Self-efficacy. In V. S. Ramachaudran (Ed.), Encyclopedia of human behavior (Vol. 4, pp. 71-81). New York: Academic Press. (Reprinted in H. Friedman [Ed.], Encyclopedia of mental health. San Diego: Academic Press, 1998). 

You may also like to look at the Kidsafe WA and Kidsafe NSW websites regarding risk in play:

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