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Children need exposure to risk to learn to be careful.

No-one wants any child to be hurt. The safety of our children is critically important. However, by eliminating risks from the environments in which children learn, play and grow, we may be making them less safe, while also predisposing them to be more fearful, anxious, and less able to successfully manage risks. A child who grows up without exposure to risks may be deprived of the opportunity to develop their true sense of self.

Why play is important

Declining opportunities for free play in our modern culture are a huge concern among the health community (van Rooijen and Newstead, 2017; Brussoni et al, 2012; Gray, 2011; Little, 2015). Play is critical in the development of gross motor skills, cognitive skills, language, social skills, self-regulation, and physical health, but also has a critical function in the development of a sense of the self, and a lack of play experiences in childhood may threaten healthy development (O’Connor and Stagnitti, 2011; Gray, 2011; Stagnitti and Unsworth, 2000).

Gray (2011) argues that the decline in play is a causal factor of the rise in childhood and adolescent anxiety, depression, and narcissism. He argues that play is the primary way in which children develop five key aspects of children’s sense of self, and that without opportunities for play children may develop deficits in these areas, leading to poor mental health outcomes:

  1. Through play, children develop intrinsic interests and competencies.

  2. Children learn and practice how to make decisions, solve problems, exert self-control, and follow rules through playing.

  3. Play is essential for children to learn how to regulate their emotions.

  4. Through play, children learn to make friends and learn to get along with others.

  5. Play is the primary means for children to experience joy.

Risk-taking in play.

An important function of play is for children to learn about their capacities to master their environment and the challenges it offers. Risky play exposes children to situations they have previously feared, motivated by the sense of exhilaration which risk-taking brings. It is argued that risky play in childhood may have an important function in the development of self-concept and confidence, mitigating the development of phobias, and mediating factors which may contribute to anxiety (Sandseter and Kennair, 2011).

Risk itself is a necessary part of learning to be safe and careful. Without the presence of risks in children’s play, they are unable to learn to assess risk, make choices to manage risks, and exercise care to remain safe where hazards exist. Brussoni et al (2012) propose that, instead of keeping children “as safe as possible”, which may limit their development and ability to learn to keep themselves safe, we should instead aim for childhood experiences to be “as safe as necessary” (p.3140).

The dignity of risk.

When we do not trust individuals to make choices about risks, we prevent them from becoming competent in doing so. The concept of "dignity of risk" comes from disability theory, and describes the opportunity to make choices and take action that involves an element of risk as a necessary part of human development that, prior to the 1970's, was typically denied to people with disabilities and mental illness. Wolfensberger and his colleagues (1972) described the denial of the dignity of risk as deleterious to of the rights of people with disabilities and mental illness to develop to their full potential and as one of the ways in which full participation in society was denied to a population forced to live a permanently infantalized existence.

When I first learned about the dignity of risk, I instantly thought of this as one of the important features of my childhood. My mother was a single, working mum who actively participated in politics and social justice issues and my brother and I spent many, many hours playing unsupervised in the bush. We built things using actual tools, we went on exploratory expeditions far from home, we tested our physical capacities and the properties of the objects in our environment. We fell off trampolines, were bitten by stinging insects, got lost, and fell when tree branches proved not strong enough to support a rope swing. We climbed on the roof of our house, and Mum would yell up to us, "Walk on the bolts!". We grew up tough, independent, and learned to make better choices. We could have broken bones, but we didn't. We could have been bitten by snakes, but we weren't. I started to wonder why more things didn't go catastrophically wrong for us.

The conclusion I have come to is that we learned to make good choices. We avoided going into places that looked very likely to conceal snakes, and made a lot of noise. We learned to test our constructions before expecting them to support our body weight. We would still put the hose and a bottle of dishwashing liquid on the trampoline, but we didn't go as close to the edge, remembering that time one of us had had a leg disappear between the springs.

Children, as they grow, deserve the opportunity to develop the faith in themselves as makers of good choices. They need to be trusted to take care of their own safety to learn to take responsibility for their decisions, and can only do this if we allow the possibility for a poor choice to be present. Because they are children, of course, they need some boundaries within which they make their choices; we need to compensate, assist them and scaffold their emerging capacities for predictive thinking, inductive reasoning and impulse control, but we can also watch these capacities thrive when they are given the opportunities to exercise, strengthen and practice them.

Safety culture.

It can be hard for parents to balance their belief that risks are healthy for development with their desire to keep their children from being harmed. While a majority of mothers understand the need for children to engage in risky play, a much smaller proportion are able to allow their children to engage in risky play without intervening (Little, 2015).

Brussoni et al (2012) describe an approach to safety that eliminates sources of harm that are not obvious to children, but does not eliminate all risks. They argue that it is important to allow children to recognise and evaluate the challenges of a situation, and to form a plan of action that is not dangerous, but that still involves an element of risk. This means that we do not allow children to be in situations that are truly dangerous, or tolerate hazards that have a high likelihood of causing harm or even a very low likelihood of causing very serious harm, but that we teach children how to observe what risks are present, and how to choose a plan of action which ensures that they will be safe.

In the circus, this approach is an intrinsic part of our safety culture. Circus has an intimate association with risk, and every circus artist develops and maintains their own relationship with the risks they engage with. Safety culture is a fluid, constantly-evolving conversation between artists in which risks are identified, hazards are controlled, and safety is cultivated through all of our collective experiences and shared knowledge.

This is why it is critical that circus artists remain strongly and closely connected with the broader circus community. Safety-conscious students and parents should make sure the teachers they learn from are connected members of the circus community, and have experience working in circus companies or circus schools, rather than self-taught and operating in isolation, unable to benefit from and contribute to circus safety culture.

In “Why Circus Works”, the great Reg Bolton stated that “circus is intrinsically a process of risk management” (2004, p. 189). We at CirQuest believe we have an important role in teaching our students and community about risk as something we can manage in a variety of ways, and which we don’t necessarily have to avoid, isolate or eliminate. We believe that managing and navigating risks is part of learning respect for ourselves and our environment, and that it is an important part of development to recognise and cohabit with risks with care and respect.

In a world where there are no exposed corners, rough surfaces, or sharp edges, there are no consequences for behaving in a careless way, and the individual has no responsibility for their own safety. That is not what the world in which we live as adults is like, and a childhood in such an environment would do a poor job of preparing us for the real world.

Children need risk to thrive, and that is why they seek risk through play. To deprive children of risk in the aim of making them safer may indeed place them in more danger.

To quote my dear friend Theaker von Ziarno: “Live with care, not in fear.”


Bolton, R. (2004) Why Circus Works: How the values and structures of circus make it a significant

developmental experience for young people.

Brussoni, M., Olsen, L., Pike, I. and Sleet, D. (2012) Risky play and children’s safety: Balancing priorities for optimal child development. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 9 pp. 3134-3148.

Gray, P. (2011) The decline of play and the rise of psychopathology in children and adolescents. American Journal of Play 3(4) pp. 443-463.

Little, H. (2015) Mothers’ beliefs about risk and risk-taking in children’s outdoor play. Journal of Adventure Education and Outdoor Learning 15(1) pp. 24-39.

O’Connor, C. and Stagnitti, K. (2011) Play, behaviour, language and social skills: The comparison of a play and a non-play intervention within a specialist school setting. Research in Developmental Disabilities 32(3) pp. 1205-1211.

Sandseter, E. and Kennair, L. (2011) Children’s risky play from an evolutionary perspective: The anti-phobic effects of thrilling experiences. Evolutionary Psychology 9(2) pp. 257-284.

Stagnitti, K. and Unsworth, C. (2000) The importance of pretend play in child development: An occupational therapy perspective. British Journal of Occupational Therapy 63(3) pp. 121-127.

van Rooijen M. and Newstead, S. (2017) Influencing factors on professional attitudes towards risk-taking in children’s play: a narrative review. Early Child Development and Care 187(5-6) pp. 946-957.

Wolfensberger, W., Nirje, B., Olshansky, S., Perske, R. and Roos, P. (1972) The Principle of Normalization In Human Services. Books: Wolfensberger Collection. 1.

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