Risky business
Recently two things happened that have got me thinking about risk.
Firstly, I had a telephone call from a very worried mother who had read that we make rafts with the children and sail them on the lake. We do indeed make tiny toy boats out of twigs and leaves and whatever else we can find and then see how far across whatever lake/stream we are near they can get. At a push, they might carry a beetle (a small beetle).
“The thing is,” said the worried mum, “My son is only five and he can’t swim, and I’m worried he might fall off if you pushed him out on the lake.”
Obviously I need to be clearer about what ‘rafts’ mean, as she was genuinely worried until I reassured her, but it struck me that she must think we are terrifyingly Spartan (and demented) to think we would sail a 5-year-old over deep water alone (or, indeed, at all).
The second thing was watching a school party of Year 1 children decant itself from a minibus at one of our sites, with every child in an identical high-visibility yellow tabard. My colleagues know I have a bit of a thing about high-vis on children in the woods: let me tell you why.
Yellow safety tabards, the bane of Forest School
High-vis is designed to make you easily visible in construction or high-speed environments, where the main danger is not being noticed by someone operating heavy machinery, and subsequently being squashed. It does not make you easier to see in the woods except at middle-to-long distance, and  as a young child if you are that far away from an adult then (in my opinion) your Forest School leader is not doing their job.
Wearing high vis does not prevent you from tripping over, getting stung, falling into deep water or having something fall on you out of a tree; but it does give the adults accompanying you a (false) sense of security. A good illustration of this is the school party (not one of ours) we found on Wimbledon Common, all dressed in regulation eye-watering yellow, making a camp right underneath a tree with a huge den built of large logs high up in the branches that was in imminent danger of collapse. The teachers had dressed their children to keep them safe but hadn’t risk assessed the area properly, and consequently they and their children were in real danger of serious injury or, given the size of the branches and their height, even a fatality. I should have taken a picture but I was too anxious to move them away quickly. They felt safe because they had their jackets on….
Finally, fluorescent jackets give children the message that they are in a dangerous or scary environment, which the woods aren’t, if you follow some simple rules. Worse still, the jacket tells the children “we’ve put you in a safety jacket because the grownups are in charge of keeping you safe; you’re not responsible for your own safety at all”.
Better to teach them the rules, surely, and allow them to learn to manage the risk and the responsibility? Then we can hope they will take some of those risk assessment and management skills out of the woods with them.
So, we don’t encourage yellow jackets (grr!) and we don’t sail small children off on rickety rafts, but we do think risk (the right kind and amount of risk) is an essential part of childhood, and (unlike lots of other holiday clubs) we try to build it in rather than design it out.
The value of risk
One of our issues as parents is that we confuse risk with danger. A danger is something that will cause harm (a lake or dangerous tree in the context above); a risk is the chance that that harm will come to pass. Learning to manage risks gives us the skill set to safely navigate dangers.
Risk is accepted by developmental psychologists (and proponents of common sense!) as an essential part of a healthy childhood. Learning your limitations, identifying danger, and pushing the boundaries of what you think you can do are vital tools throughout your life. However, as parents, many of us are unaccustomed to allowing even the tiniest degree of danger to enter the lives of our children. Surely it’s the job of a good parent to keep them safe? That’s why roaming distance (how far children are allowed to play from home) has decreased by 90% in the past 30 years. Many of us manage a schedule of activities for our kids that would make a CEO blench, but which are all carefully designed not to put our precious charges in any ‘danger’. But we are designed to experience a degree of fear; if you manage it out of your children’s lives they will seek it elsewhere, either vicariously through computer games, or elsewhere, potentially far more dangerously.
As parents, we have a responsibility not only to understand the inevitability of risk, but to know the importance of taking life’s risks, small and large. Risk is an unavoidable part of development, and thoughtful risk epitomises human growth and change. Risk-taking is a key developmental concept, and as parents we need to understand its significance as a learning experience for children. Through modelling, nurturing and teaching good risk-taking skills, and importantly giving children the chance to practice them, our children will be better prepared to meet life’s challenges.
What is good risk?
It’s not playing underneath a potentially lethal tree with a safety jacket on, or practising boating over deep water as a non-swimming five-year-old. A good risk is an action, activity or behavior that, precipitated by careful thought, involves a ‘leap’ toward the edge of safety and danger. It is age-, competence- and activity-related; in other words, everyone’s threshold for risk differs for every activity; so there are no easy or generic judgements to be made.
Risk taking, like other skills, needs to be learned and practiced over time, and we need to accept the consequences of getting it wrong in order to have the learning benefits. Susan Davis and Nancy Eppler-Wolff are clinical psychologists in private practice in New York City. Together they wrote Children Who Soar: A Parent’s Guide to Helping Children Take Good Risks (2009). They have identified four steps towards good risk taking. These are:

  1. Identify the risk – physical, emotional, social or intellectual, or a combination of factors.
  2. Stay aware of the potential dangers, and benefits, of moving forward or staying still.
  3. Think through one’s actions.
  4. Evaluate one’s actions afterwards.

If it is really important for our children to learn to take smart risks, what can we do to facilitate this behavior, and to minimize the taking of poor risks? In the next article we’ll talk about what you can do to encourage healthy, age- and competence-appropriate risk-taking in children (and grownups).

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