Childhood is Risky Business

I have previously shared some thoughts about children and risk, both here on the blog and on air. And when my daughter knocked herself out by falling while tree climbing – my opinion was challenged, but ultimately unchanged.

While I am happy to share my perspective as an educator and a mother, I am not a child psychologist myself, so I was delighted to be able to interview Dr Paula Barrett about this topic.  Here are her thoughts on the risky business of childhood.

(Yes, my kids are playing with sticks…!)

Paula, why is it important for children to be allowed to take risks in their play?

There are several reasons but mainly because children learn and gain resilience through challenging experiences. If a child only ever does things within their comfort zone, where they completely understand all the potential outcomes, they don’t learn how to deal with not always achieving the right result or potential disappointment, which is extremely important in later life. Children learn the most when they are challenged.

As parents, how do we know what is reasonable risk, and what is dangerous? 

Risk needs to be determined dependant on the particular child and what is developmentally appropriate. For example, a very young child may be able to climb a tree but doesn’t actually yet have the muscle strength for a successful climb – which can result in a dangerous situation. It is very useful to listen to your support networks to help guide you on this, such as grandparents who have great experience and parents with kids of a similar age as they may have dealt with similar situations.  There are also other networks you can rely on who have studied in this area, for example, child care workers, sport coaches etc – they can often make a valuable contribution to your questions.

Have today’s parents become too risk averse?  Why do you think this has happened?

There are so many reasons for this but I think the main ones are:

  • Parents are more isolated when bringing up children than they used to be. Involving your support networks can help you better evaluate risk by including those with experience, like grandparents or parents with kids of similar ages.
  • There are just so many rules – which are good in that they protect society at large however they can also inhibit children to take risk.
  • Kids time today is increasingly over-structured with too many scheduled activities – which minimises the opportunities children to be challenged outside of being told what to do.

What should we do to encourage children who are not natural risk takers?

A great way to encourage children who are not natural risk takers is to help them form friendships with children who are.

And, as parents you can reassure them through modelling the behaviour– go outside with them and get involved.  You can try a step plan where you encourage them to face challenging situations in small steps – maybe once a week or once a fortnight, only moving them to the next step when they are ready.  It helps to reward them but not with things that you buy – it is more powerful to dedicate time to something that they love doing e.g. take them to the beach or build a cubby house with them.

Is there any evidence to suggest that encouraging kids to take risks in play might lead to risky behaviour later in life? 

No, there is none at all! Children taking risks during play build self-confidence, whereas developing good judgement or self-regulation is another issue all together. Risk taking in adulthood is more about personality and life choices.


Many thanks to Dr Paula Barrett for answering my questions about kids and risk, and the team from MILO for arranging the interview. I am proud to be a MILO Play Ambassador!

8 thoughts on “Childhood is Risky Business

  1. So happy to have read this. I would rather my children be exposed to some dangers in their play then have them play in a bubble.

  2. How interesting to read this article. As an educator and mother it worries me about the lack of resilience children are starting school with. Times have changed so much from the freedom we experienced as children. It makes me wonder how the next generation are going to cope when they are confronted with trauma or some of life’s greater challenges. Lets hope this message gets spread that it’s okay for children to take risks in their physical play and that they should be encouraged to do so. Organised sport is also a great way for children to take risks in a ‘controlled’ way.

  3. great, tree climbing still on the agenda, wonder how high Lil and Roo can go ( within reasonable reach of me getting them down)

  4. I really agree with the point “there are just so many rules,” it reminds me of an interesting (but outrageous) article I read recently about banning balls from particular primary schools. That is no typo – BALLS!!

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