Should We Minimize Risk in Environmental Education?

by Melissa Harding

Much has been made recently of “risk-averse” nature play. From David Sobel’s article Look, Don’t Touch to Ken Finch’s But…Isn’t It Dangerous?, bloggers, authors and parents alike have been concerned about the state of outdoor play at both nature centers and schools. Many of these authors feel that creating risk-averse environments for children, especially during what has traditionally been messy and unstructured outdoor play, is both detrimental to the development of children and distorts their view of nature.

For Ken Finch, founder and president of The Green Hearts Institute for Nature in Childhood, nature play is meant to be risky. Children may be injured, but that is not always a bad thing. Children may always be injured as they learn how to manage themselves in an environment with inherent risks, whether it is determining how high they should climb or whether a rock is slippery. However, children need to learn to manage risk in their lives; the inherent risk in outdoor play is no reason to keep children from engaging in the outdoors. Finch argues that without taking risks no child would ever learn to walk or ride a bike, let alone learn to manage the complexity of an adult life.

All of this seems to point to how we perceive the amount of risk inherent in a situation. Human beings are very poor at judging risk. We base our perceptions of risk more on emotion and instinct than fact and reason (Source). This is the same mindset that makes us more afraid of sharks than driving a car; a car accident is statistically much more likely than a shark attack (Source), yet many people drive all the time and are afraid of the ocean. Maybe our fear of risk, yet proven inability to correctly assess it, is part of the problem; maybe nature play isn’t as risky as we think.

For Finch,  valuable learning occurs when children are allowed to play away from adults and without structure. Nature can be a testing ground where children use their imaginations to act out conquests and challenges. This is what many adults remember from their own childhoods, yet are afraid to let their children experience. Finch argues for the use of comparative risk; the risk of letting children play in nature is far less than the risk of keeping them away from it. He fears that this current culture will create children who find nature boring and restrictive, seeing no need to care for it. His solution, allowing risk but managing clear hazards, allows children to feel unhampered by rules yet still be safe from real injury.

David Sobel has a similar argument; he feels that the joy of children exploring the world on their own terms is no longer allowed. He takes environmental education to task, citing its “look, don’t touch” mentality as a stumbling block to its true goal of reconnecting children to nature in a meaningful way. He also cites a number of programs that celebrate wild nature play and accept risk as part of the deal.

Finally, Kay Wyma of the New York Times’ Motherlode column, talks about an experience her son had climbing trees. A well-intentioned neighbor admonished her child for climbing and asked her “What if he falls?”. The answer to that question, that he would learn his boundaries, is the basis of her column. She argues that children need to learn to do for themselves, to learn boundaries, and maybe even to fail and fall a little – even, or maybe especially, outside.

Taken all together, where do these articles put us?

I’m not sure. As an educator, I feel very strongly that we need to make nature more accessible to our students. Without hands-on experiences, I fear our students will see ecology as dry and boring instead of exciting and teeming with life. However, I also understand the natural desire to minimize risk; no one wants to see any child hurt.

So this is where we can all draw our own conclusions.  I encourage you to read all of the articles and opinions cited here, as well as find your own. Whatever the answer is, we all need to work together to ensure that our children are given the ability to bond with nature and fall in love with it. That way, there is someone left to preserve it.

The above picture is taken by Christie Lawry.


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