Why risk is good

Teachers have to spend a good chunk (or at least some) of their time limiting risk. After all, keeping children safe is at the heart of a teacher’s duty of care and limiting the amount of risks they face is one way to do this. It could be done subconsciously, such as simply organising how children move around school or the classroom, or consciously, completing a formal risk assessment for a school trip.

Is all risk bad?
Dictionary.com defines risk as:

1. exposure to the chance of injury or loss; a hazard or dangerous chance: It’s not worth the risk.

Risk taking can be thought of in another way though. Not the kind of risk that exposes children in your class to the chance of injury, loss or danger, but instead the kind of risk that gives children the confidence to try something new, even if they might well fail.

As I understand it, risk management and taking is one of the major skills in enterprise education, which is something I have personally had the opportunity to become more familiar with. In Learning to take risks, learning to succeed, Heather Rolfe talks about the importance of risk taking:

Risk taking is essential to innovation: anyone developing a new product, service or idea risks the possibility that it will not work, that someone else will get there first or it will be met with disinterest. Young people entering work in the twenty-first century will need to take risks to find these solutions, and addressing everyday challenges also involves complex decision making and evaluation of risk.

Risk taking is becoming a core skill. Employers now need people who can communicate, work in teams, take decisions, be adaptable and take risks. Despite the demand for skills of innovation and enterprise, and despite recognition of the value of invention and original thinking, the role of risk taking in preparing young people for the future is often overlooked by educators and policy makers. In the context of young people’s lives, risk is seen as largely negative, linked to danger and regarded as something to be avoided.

In essence, we need to encourage children to take risks and not equate all risk with danger or negative outcomes or we are not preparing them for the future. Forget SATs, levels and point scores for a moment, this is a life skill.

To the circus!
The inspiration for this post came from watching some of my class take part in a circus skills workshop today. They had the opportunity to develop a whole host of new skills from juggling and plate spinning, through to walking along a tightrope, walking on stilts and riding a unicycle. All completely new activities to everyone and with a high element of risk involved. Not a dangerous risk, but certainly the risk of failure, looking a bit silly and feeling a tad nervous because they were out of their comfort zones. The outcomes? Some children managed to walk the tightrope unaided, some didn’t. Some children walked swiftly on the stilts by themselves, some didn’t. You get the picture. However, they all gave it a shot and some of them hadn’t even imagined they would do that at the beginning. The ones that succeeded in carrying out a task were all genuinely surprised too. Either way, it had been worth the risk.

Break it down now
As I watched the instructors break down even the seemingly most impossible of activities, into manageable steps, it occurred to me that maybe children (and us) can actually achieve more than we imagine is possible, if the task at hand is broken down and mastered in the right way.

The king of breaking the seemingly possible down into manageable chunks by analysing what ‘experts’ do, and exploiting his own strengths that match them, has to be Tim Ferriss. In his TED Talk, Smash fear, learn anything, he explains how he went from being unable to swim to swimming 1km in open water by doing just that. He also became an Argentine tango world champion and fluent in Japanese, from nothing, in a similar way. His art is ‘deconstructing things that scare the living hell out of him.’ Basically, if you can split a task up into the right skills and sequences, you can do just about anything. What a useful and inspiring mindset to instill in pupils. And maybe this is one way to encourage risk? Not to get bogged down or put off by what looks like an unachievable bigger picture, but to take risks in managed steps instead.

Encouraging risk in education
  • Public speaking at ‘proper’ events like Learning Without Frontiers and The BETT Show
  • Being given the freedom to experiment in science
  • Applying for roles as digital leaders
  • Running enterprise businesses to raise money for charity
  • Organising and staging a fashion show to raise money

These are some of things that I’ve been part of, which popped into my head when thinking about encouraging children to take risks in school. But I have a feeling this is just the tip of the iceberg and with a Tim Ferriss-like approach, even greater risks and successes might be possible.

What do you think? How have you encouraged children to take risks? Can it go further?

man on wire by image munky
Attribution-NonCommercial License


  • Very nice and well thought out post. Far too many are scared of taking risks. A calculated risk is a mitigated one and without it children (and adults) will not learn.

  • Forest School is great for encouraging risk taking and developing resilience.

  • It is great to read about your enterprise activities. I agree totally. Risk-taking is the hardest of the enterprise skills to come to terms with and the one that teachers are most reluctant to try. Bravo to you for having the courage!
    Now that you have seen the effect it has had on your students, I hope that you will continue to push the boundaries.
    Businesses constantly tell us that we are not producing young people who are work-ready. They don’t really care too much about test results and exams. They want workers who can use initiative, work in teams as well as individually, solve problems, make decisions, communicate well, be innovative etc etc. In other words, be enterprising. You have already begun to put your children ahead of the pack. Great work!

  • Great post Claire. I think a big step we can take as teachers is to learn to model risk taking and trying things out that might not work yet showing how we can learn from the experience. More power to you, the kids in your class are lucky indeed.

  • I’m always fascinated how some of the children I teach are able to take the most amazing risks with their safety ie climbing on roofs, but are reluctant to take a risk with their learning. In both cases they feel out of control but on one they still feel they have some control over the choices they can make however bad these choices may look to us! I agree that it is vital to teach children the skills that all them to tackle the risks they come across.

  • It’s all about calculated risks.

    Chance of injury occurring vs. severity of said injury.

    All mapped out in the new govt. doc on PE.

  • Yes this is the case here, they don’t really care too much about test results and exams. They want workers who can use initiative, work in teams as well as individually.

  • I totally agree with this! In our school we have developed an additional curriculum made up of elements we believe children need to become 21st Century learners. One of the major elements being taking risk and dealing with disappointment. We have to include opportunities for risk taking within our planning.

    We have a real life curriculum where the children rather than a topic/thematic based one work in teams on real life projects. For example my children recently organised and made clothes for a Trashion Show where they were being judged by designers and fashion show organisers. They had to do a persuasive presentation to 6 hotels to secure a function room for free, if the hotels didn’t agree the show couldn’t go ahead!!!! They certainly learnt to take risks and deal with disappointment, but secured a room for free!!! These children are a mixed year 3/4 group and pulled it off with ease! The confidence and maturity that these children show by the end of year 6 is truly amazing!


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