No Fear: Growing Up in a Risk Averse Society

No Fear: Growing up in a risk averse society

Written by British play advocate Tim Gill, No Fear: Growing up in a risk averse society (published by Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, 2007), questions society's trend to increasingly try to eliminate risks in children's everyday lives based on perceived fears for their safety. He notes that this “risk aversion...restricts children's play, limits their freedom of movement, corrodes their relationships with adults and constrains their exploration of physical, social and virtual worlds.”1 Instead he proposes that there needs to be a balance between protecting children and giving them growth opportunities while trusting in their resiliency and abilities.

Tim begins by noting that, “For the past 30 years at least, childhood prior to adolescence has been marked by shrinking freedom of action for children, and growing adult control and supervision.”2 These “shrinking horizons of childhood” are partly due to what sociologist Frank Furedi has called an increasing “culture of fear” and partly due to the changing dynamics of home, school, and available technology.3

No Fear utilizes playgrounds to illustrate how these “horizons” of childhood began to shrink in the United Kingdom. After a brief history of early playgrounds and a sketch of safety issues in the 1970s and 1980s, Tim points to the influence of a popular British television show, That's Life, in 1990. This program focused on safety surfacing needs in playgrounds and “gave the impression that playgrounds were dangerous places, that the main source of danger was hard surfaces, and that any injury, no matter how serious or slight, was a sign of failure on the part of providers.”4

Seeking to “separate fact from emotion,” Tim notes that swimming and soccer have more injuries than playground play, that playground accident rates have remained steady despite new equipment standards and widely installing safety surfacing, and that “the odds of a child dying from such a playground accident are less than 30 million to one,” similar to risks found in the home.5 Additionally he cites emerging research which points to a “risk compensation” factor in which rubber safety surfacing may actually lead to more broken arms because the children rely on the safety surfacing and then take greater risks.

His conclusion is that safety surfacing is questionable as far as being able to reduce accidents and from the cost-benefit viewpoint “is a highly disproportionate response to a minimal risk.”6 He believes that the money would be better spent on more playgrounds closer to children's neighborhoods to reduce the more prevalent traffic accidents incurred en route to play.7

The emotional demands for preventative measures to ensure zero injuries on playgrounds may be, Tim postulates, an “inappropriate transfer to playgrounds of principles from workplace health and safety.” As an example he states, “In most workplaces the presence of physical risks – vertical drops, wobbly bridges or narrow balance beams – is a problem to be solved, whereas in a playground it is often an asset.”8

Tim discusses how litigation and insurance requirements, especially in the United States where a “compensation culture” is a major cause of risk aversion, “encourage a less thoughtful approach to risk management.”9 In contrast, he highlights the attitude in some European countries such as Denmark and Germany that “there is always a risk when you play and move your body” and that accidents are expected occasionally. Naturalistic playscapes are more common in these countries, and they have found that children “learn to take more care and responsibility for their safety in the nature play spaces and as a result accident rates have not increased.”10

In looking at the nature of risks for children ages 5-11 years old, Tim explores four ways risks assist children to develop: by teaching them how to manage risky situations, by satisfying their appetite for “thrills” in a productive and safe way, by facilitating learning and physical health in a broader world of experiences, and by building character qualities through being challenged.11

In contrast, Tim notes the “nanny state” caused by the belief that “Children should be protected, dependent, healthy and happy.”12 However, he postulates that children are searching for autonomy and becoming resentful of this protective status. As Hannan, a teen in Newcastle, said, “Kids should be allowed to experiment and try things. Otherwise when they grow up they’ll make very stupid mistakes from not getting enough experience at childhood.”13

After exploring the causes and spread of the “deficit” idea of childhood in which children are considered “fragile, incompetent, accident-prone, unable to deal with adversity and incapable of learning how to look after themselves or to manage their own safety,” No Fear promotes a balanced approach to play in which children are encouraged to face dangers and overcome challenging situations.14 With less safety-oriented and more challenging playgrounds, Tim asserts children's natural resilience and abilities are allowed to develop.

Envisioning the next generation of children to be “engaged, self-confident, responsible, resilient citizens: people who both feel they have some control over their destinies and are alive to the consequences of their actions,” Tim declares society must accept the challenge of shifting the focus from “the adults' duty of care to children’s agency” in a balanced and responsible manner.15

  • 1. “No Fear.” Rethinking Childhood. 5 May 2013.
  • 2. Gill, Tim. No Fear: Growing up in a risk averse society. London, England: Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, 2007. p. 12.
  • 3. Op.cit., Gill., pp. 12-14.
  • 4. Op.cit., Gill., p. 26.
  • 5. Op.cit., Gill., pp. 26-28.
  • 6. Op.cit., Gill., pp. 28-29.
  • 7. Op.cit., Gill., pp. 29-30.
  • 8. Op.cit., Gill., p. 37.
  • 9. Op.cit., Gill., p. 31. Quoting Ball, David. Playgrounds: Risks, benefits and choices. Sudbury, Health and Safety Executive, 2002, section 8.4.
  • 10. Op.cit., Gill., p. 32. Quoting Rabhein, Harald. from Harrop, P. To Replace Order with Chaos: A brief report on the Growing Adventure study tour. unpublished, available on request from the Forestry Commission, 2005.
  • 11. Op.cit., Gill., pp. 15-16.
  • 12. Op.cit., Gill., p. 17. Quoting Cunningham, Hugh. The Guardian, 20 September 2006.
  • 13. Op.cit., Gill., p. 19. BBC website, 1 March 2005:
  • 14. Op.cit., Gill. p. 38.
  • 15. Op.cit., Gill. p. 84.