The Benefits of Risk (or: Better a Broken Arm than a Broken Spirit)

By Warren Heggarty


Could trying to protect people all the time actually be making them less confident, less able to master their environment? 

If taking risks is bad for us, why is it that 4,500,000,000 years of evolution has not completely eliminated risk-taking from our DNA? Could it be that a certain amount of risk is actually GOOD for us? 

According to David Ball, professor of risk management at Middlesex University, UK, people, miss out on something when we try to make the world safe. We miss the opportunity to learn and adapt. (Whipple, 2018) 

This is suggested by an experiment carried out at Parish School in Houston, Texas, USA. This is a school for children with various disabilities and conditions. It has two playgrounds, a rickety old adventure playground with puddles and splintering bits of timber, and a nice neat, safe, modern playground like your council would approve. 

The school’s children use both playgrounds. Which do you think yields the most injuries? In fact, the nice, neat, safe modern playground does. It has three times the injury rate of the dangerous looking adventure playground. (Gill, 2018) 

Professor Ball’s explanation for this is that when children know an environment is safe, they will go to extraordinary lengths to compensate by playing irresponsibly. 

Perhaps also, when children know there ARE dangers, they might take a little more care. 

If this is the case, what possible benefit could such a natural risk-taking tendency have for us humans?

Could it be that everyday risk taking helps us learn about our environment and develop confidence in dealing with it? 

Could it be that everyday risk taking helps us learn about our environment and develop confidence in dealing with it? Could trying to protect people all the time actually be making them less confident, less able to master their environment? 

Mark Tremblay of the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario in Canada says ‘We are protecting kids to such an extreme that they have no confidence in themselves… Mental health issues, the tsunami of our time, are horrible. Children are on screens all the time, becoming anxious and depressed. This happens a lot more than kids getting eaten by grizzlies or hit by lightning. Grass stains are what childhood is supposed to be about. A grazed knew is an asset, not a liability.’ (Whipple, 2018) 

There is a growing trend for people to believe that everyone needs to take control of their lives to get out of their toxic, air conditioned indoor environments, to get outside into the fresh air and to make their own mistakes. Even in Canada, where it is freezing cold, and there really are grizzly bears. 

Professor Ellen Sandseter of Queen Maud University College in Trondheim, Norway believes that he purpose of risky play in children may be to make life both less risky and less scary. Writing on Sandseter’s work, Tom Whipple comments that the thrill children get from confronting mild fear (such as climbing a tree) provides them with skills and confidence to face the tasks that they will encounter in adult life. Missing out on this sort of adventure can lead to phobias and anxiety because our ‘fear system has not been trained’ (Whipple, 2018) 

In any case, the most common risk factors in adventure is not in the environment, but in the behaviour of the person. 

Flourish Australia’s approach to risk 

Under our Recovery Action Framework, one of Flourish Australia’s eight organisational accountabilities is that: ‘Our services will be person-led, supporting people to make individual choices focusing on their strengths, their desires and potential to change and learn.’ (RichmondPRA, 2014) None of this comes without risk. 

If risk can be valuable, how do we as an organisation approach risk, and how do we balance it with our duty of care towards staff, volunteers, students, visitors and the people who access our services? 

In the short term, we have a responsibility to promote safety, to reduce harm, and to fulfil our duty not to be careless or negligent. 

Flourish Australia recognises that self-determination is a vital part of a person’s mental health recovery journey. It has been documented that ‘dignity of risk,’ exercising one’s right to take informed and calculated risks, may assist a person to develop, grow and be more independent. This is a valuable aspect of the recovery journey 

In the long term, therefore, our objective is to ‘help the person appraise and manage their own safety.’ 

We aim to do this in the least restrictive manner possible, thereby providing both a safe service and a service that allows people to stretch themselves as their recovery journey progresses. (Flourish Australia, 2016) 

Risk in practice 

When we talk about ‘risk’ here, we are not talking about base jumping from the top of Sydney Tower. We are talking about the risks To give an example, a person who accesses our Goulburn service wanted to take part in the annual City To Surf race in Sydney last year. 

There are a number of potential risks here, not the least of which is to ensure that the person is sufficiently fit to participate. However, risks can be seen as guideposts to our goal, not as barriers to it. So after some planning, the trip was made and the goal realised. We hope to bring you the full story soon in Panorama, of course! 

A person who accesses our service at Katoomba has recently learned to drive again after a lengthy break from it due to being unwell. They had been dissuaded from driving due to hospitalisation and medication. 

Many of our readers will know that when you are on large doses of certain medications, doctors will often discourage you from driving as the medication will put you ‘over the limit.’ Unfortunately, the doctors sometimes forget to encourage you to return to driving when that becomes viable again. The freedom of being able to drive yourself around is something that many of us need to regain, if we can. 

The quote “better a broken arm than a broken spirit” is from Lady Allen of Hurtwood, 1968 


Flourish Australia. (2016, October 1). Duty of Care and Dignity of Risk WHP 15. Retrieved from Chirp, Flourish Australia’s intranet:

Gill, T. (2018, April 19). What is more dangerous, an adventure playground or a conventional playground? Retrieved from Rethinking childhood:

RichmondPRA. (2014). Recovery Action Framework 2014- 16. Retrieved from CHIRP- Flourish Australia’s intranet:

Whipple, T. (2018, February 4). No Pain, No Gain. Childhood cuts and bruises are part of the learning process, and an excessive focus on safety may do more harm than good. The Australian . 


ABOVE: Alice stretches herself by leaving her comfort zone and learning to swim with a friend. DRAWING BY SIR JOHN TENNIEL FROM LEWIS CARROLL’S ‘ALICE’S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND’

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