How To Raise Children To Be Risk Takers So They Don’t Grow Up To Be Reckless

The thought of teaching children to be risk takers flies in the face of our fierce love as parents and care givers to keep them safe. My children are now adults, yet to this day, I want to wrap them up and protect them, even from themselves, if that’s what it takes.

And yet! The parent and teacher in me knows better. I’ve come to understand as I’ve watched my children grow, and observed the kindergarteners in my classroom, learning to take risks is perhaps one of the most valuable gifts we can give or receive. It exposes us to spectacular failures and wild successes in equal measure. It also requires grit, determination, passion, perseverance, and an indomitable spirit to map the unknown terrain just beyond our comfort zone.

When my children were babies I thought, with complacency and a certain smugness, my role as a parent was to teach them. It turns out they had their own humbling advice to impart: just when I thought I had everything figured out, I realized I didn’t. In fact some days I know less than I thought I knew before!


My children taught me they have their own trajectory through life. All I could do was my parent best when they were still on the launch pad. Be a cheerleader on the sidelines! Help them recognize the difference between risk-taking and recklessness! Know when the time was right to let them have the driver’s seat, literally and figuratively. Help them dust themselves off when they inevitably stumbled, and send them off into the world knowing they were loved.

And did I mention…every time I thought I had everything figured out, I realized I didn’t!

My children inspired me to dig deep in order to clarify my personal beliefs. To better understand and articulate the world of difference between self-assessing a risk to decide if it’s worth taking, versus the sheer recklessness of plunging into something wild, new and crazy with complete disregard for the consequences. Both paths hold novelty and spontaneity, but risk-taking comes with choices and an understanding that actions carry intended and unintended consequences.


Sara Knight in her book Risk and Adventure in Early Years Outdoor Play: Learning from Forest Schools, points to research that shows helping children develop healthy risk-taking skills from a young age is one of the best ways to raise teens skilled in self assessing risks and less likely to act recklessly.

IMG_1614Young children are experiential learners and playing outdoors provides a perfect setting. Curious and full of wonder, they make sense of the world by using all their senses to actively explore. The natural environment is constantly changing – weather, temperature, light, sounds, smells, textures, sights – an on-going demonstration of cause and effect, inviting children to ask what would happen if….

IMG_2024Tree climbing adventures, and the inevitable tumbles, gave my children a respect for limitations and scrambling abilities. Family camping and backpacking trips, with camp-fires and s’mores, became adventures in teaching fire safety, the use of knives and axes. Allowing them to explore and experiment, with supervision, helped demystify the thrill of the dangerous, take the “forbidden” out of the “fruit.” Bumps and scrapes happened along the way but they were an important part of the learning process as they acquired transferable skills and self-knowledge.

My children also showed me that in order to thrive they needed routine and a predictable environment. My son and daughter approached life in very different ways. From the time he could walk, my son had the analytical curiosity and prudent caution of the engineer he would become as an adult. My free spirited, big picture thinker daughter adopted a more backwards by design approach: put the pieces of life’s puzzle together through experience then reflection. Predictability and the comfort of familiar routines was the key to helping them feel safe enough to try new challenges.


As a parent and a teacher, I marvel at the resiliency of children. They are born risk takers. Every day they are confronted with experiences that may challenge their personal comfort zones – new things to try, new people to meet, new places to go. We must applaud their courage, and teach them to understand and respect that risk taking is a personal endeavor, unique to each individual. With gentle encouragement along the way, we can help them develop confidence, self-awareness, self-reliance, determination, persistence, empathy, kindness, resilience and discernment. The power of making choices!

And did I mention…every time I thought I had everything figured out, I realized I didn’t!


About Sheila

I started Play Without Ceilings to share my passion for getting outdoors to enjoy a nature inspired, healthier, happier, play full lifestyle. I grew up in England and now live in the Pacific Northwest. I love all things outdoors from lying in the grass listening to birdsong to hiking mountains and every outside moment in between. Thanks for stopping by and may you find inspiration for your next adventure.

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