The Importance of Risk in Childhood

To live a life without risk is to live a life that doesn’t challenge. Exposing ourselves to risk, allowing ourselves to encounter obstacles, gives us an opportunity to discover our strengths as well as our weaknesses. It is through risk, that we come to know ourselves. As children, we come into this world as sponges – soaking up the world around us at incredible speeds. As our coordination and dexterity, problem solving, and awareness grow, we learn to navigate our environment and our relationships. It is in childhood where we establish our foundation – trusting our intuition so that we have the chance to feel grounded as we grow.

Exposure to risk allows children to develop a sense of themselves. We live in a society that softly pads the experiences of our youth. Too often children are steered away from “risky” behaviors that are essential to their development. There are six risky behaviors kids naturally seek out.

In a Psychology Today article Risky Play: Why Children Love It and Need It written by Peter Gray Ph.D. he highlights the six categories of risks that children are attracted to as identified by Ellen Sandseter, a professor at Queen Maud University in Trondheim, Norway. These are:

  • Great heights. Children climb trees and other structures to scary heights, from which they gain a birds-eye view of the world and the thrilling feeling of I did it!.
  • Rapid speeds. Children swing on vines, ropes, or playground swings; slide on sleds, skis, skates, or playground slides; shoot down rapids on logs or boats; and ride bikes, skateboards, and other devices fast enough to produce the thrill of almost but not quite losing control.
  • Dangerous tools. Depending on the culture, children play with knives, bows and arrows, farm machinery (where work and play combine), or other tools known to be potentially dangerous.  There is, of course, great satisfaction in being trusted to handle such tools, but there is also thrill in controlling them, knowing that a mistake could hurt.
  • Dangerous elements. Children love to play with fire, or in and around deep bodies of water, either of which poses some danger.
  • Rough and tumble. Children everywhere chase one another around and fight playfully, and they typically prefer being in the most vulnerable position—the one being chased or the one underneath in wrestling–the position that involves the most risk of being hurt and requires the most skill to overcome.
  • Disappearing/getting lost.  Little children play hide and seek and experience the thrill of temporary, scary separation from their companions.  Older ones venture off, on their own, away from adults, into territories that to them are new and filled with imagined dangers, including the danger of getting lost.

As you can see, each of these has a specific developmental purpose. By forbidding these behaviors, we are literally stunting our children’s development.

As adults, who have most likely learned through our own risky behavior, our job is to assess when risk can become a hazard. By having a clear set of rules around risk, we can maximize the benefits of risky behavior while minimizing injury. Developing age appropriate protocols with regards to safety rules is paramount here.

In a forest setting, restrictions are put on the specific behaviors kids seek out. That means climbing height restrictions, protocols for adverse weather conditions, monitoring of water intake to prevent dehydration, developing protocols with regards to apex predators, having an evacuation procedure and implementing a method of communication with children in the event of a dangerous situation. Unstructured does not mean the absence of rules. It means that children are allowed to explore risk in a safe environment that nurtures their development and self awareness.  

Raising my children in the forest has brought many opportunities for risk and many opportunities for me to learn to trust in the necessity of it. This trust is a milestone for me as a parent and it gives my children the opportunity to learn how to trust themselves. Under my watchful eye, with a clear set of rules, my children explore freely in nature. The gains they receive while exploring their abilities within this safe place seem to weed out misbehavior. They feel safe and capable in their environment. They have been coached through potentially risky situations. They know their limits and they learn about their environment and themselves. It is in this space that we have cultivated an environment of awe and wonder and continued imagination that will serve them indefinitely.  


See you in the woods!