The Role of Risk in Youth Development

a young boy climbs on a rock wall

When we encourage young people to play outside or to engage in experiential learning, we are accepting a certain level of risk. The outdoors presents a range of environmental factors outside of our control. When we try something new, the possibility of failure or mistakes along the way always exists. But, not only is it impossible to entirely remove risk from children’s lives, it is essential that we do not. Of course, managing and mitigating some types of risks is essential to creating safe learning and play environments, but the presence of some risk is a key ingredient in healthy child development.

two little girls with roller blades

Risk, ultimately, is uncertainty. Risk is present when we do not know what an outcome will be. This could be a physical risk, like a child jumping off a swing set unsure if they will land on their feet or tumble in the mulch. It could also be an emotional or social risk, like walking up to a new classmate at school and asking if they want to share a lunch table. Both physical and emotional risks have long been a tenant of outdoor and experiential education. Experiencing risk allows youth to feel challenged, and hopefully engaged, as they stretch their comfort zones and learn to navigate obstacles and build relationships.

a little girl rides a bike with the help of an adult

Experiencing success following a risk can help young people feel confident and competent as they continue to come up against uncertainty and challenge in their lives. This might be the uncertainty of trying out for a more rigorous sports team or the challenge of taking on a leadership role during a hiking or camping trip. Even experiencing failure and acknowledging mistakes is an important lesson that comes from risk-taking. Going through the process of feeling disappointed or problem solving to understand what went wrong helps children learn and choose different behaviors or solutions the next time they are presented with something that stretches their abilities and comfort levels.  

a girl rides a seesaw in a park

Of course, there are some risks that are beyond a child’s ability to understand and process. The risk of serious injury or of emotional trauma is not worth a learning moment. These kinds of risks might include environmental risks from air and water pollution or social risks of violence in many communities. The presence of risk also intersects with equity issues. A child’s identity and background can expose them to higher levels of risk because of structural racism, classism, sexism, and heterosexism. Similarly, the ability to grow through mistakes without externally imposed consequences can also vary based on identity.

a child navigates a ropes course

With an understanding of these inequities in mind, schools, camps, and other youth-focused organizations have to find the balance between maintaining safety and offering opportunities for reasonable risk-taking. Finding that balance and presenting youth with the right level of risk is a key factor in creating meaningful learning experiences and opportunities for growth. Play and recreation present great environments for this kind of meaningful learning, especially in outdoor settings where children’s curiosity is peaked and the opportunity to explore is around every corner.