Managing risk in inherently risky activities involving children can be subjective and, as a parent or guardian, only you will know what is appropriate for you and your family. With that being said, I want to focus on providing you with some practical advice for mitigating risk with children during outdoor play as well as some malleable advice on how to foster growth while managing risk during outdoor activities among generalized age groups.

From the parking lot to the trail, the first step in risk-management is identifying the risk factors at hand. There are personal, communal and environmental risks in any situation, but for the purpose of this article, I’ll stick to the context of the outdoors. The infographic below is a great guide to keep with you and refer to when your baby’s favorite song and diaper funk has fried your brain – and keep reading below, too!

Risky Behavior is Relative

Each family needs to determine what works for their child and their own comfort level, but science suggests that some risk is a beneficial part of building children’s critical thinking skills

These are by no means hard and fast rules. For example, my son could get to the top of his bouldering wall way before he could walk. At the other end of the “cool-toddler spectrum,” my boy was two and a half before he was comfortable going down the slide sitting on his butt rather than laying down on his stomach. Let the kids play to their strengths, but be patient and allow them equal time to learn and cultivate new skills.


Resisting Fear and Embracing Resilience: Kids and Risk in the Outdoors by Tommy Barton III for Hike it Baby


As soon as you’re comfortable wearing your baby in public, get them on the trail or even go for walks in the
neighborhood! Think about how folks raise their children in all different environments around the world. Babies spend time outside in desserts, in rain forests, on mountainsides and on beaches. Making long walks a part of the child’s lifestyle early on helps your toddler hike a lot easier later. When you do have a toddling little one, start letting them walk with you as often as your patience can muster. Baby-wearing is convenient, but the more  they practice walking, the better. The more comfortable they are on their feet, the less you have to worry about them hurting themselves and the more you can concentrate on other risk-management issues, let alone the pride that comes with it.

Toddler-Grade School

If your child is new to hiking, every step forward is progress. Start with little hikes and make it as fun as possible. You should increase the duration and frequency of the hikes based on your child’s capabilities. Again, the more hiking becomes a normal part of the child’s lifestyle, the easier it is to get them on the trail. If your kid is already running down the trails and they are ready for some growth, start taking the stairs with them wherever you can. This builds strong leg muscles and the movements are similar to the big steps their little legs will make on longer and more technical trails.

“Training” here and there on the days you’re off the trail will pay off in more miles, less rest stops on the trail, and a child who is more confident. You can also start seeking out more uneven terrain for your hikes. The more uneven and/or difficult the terrain, the more risk-management is involved, but the confidence and skill the kiddos acquire is more than worth it.


Resisting Fear and Embracing Resilience: Kids and Risk in the Outdoors by Tommy Barton III for Hike it BabyPre-Walking Toddler

If your tot is able to crawl, then they are able to “practice” Climbing. Learning body awareness, developing little muscles, and having a sweet time climbing around on things can be accomplished by lining their play area with pillows of various
sizes. Make sure the ground and surrounding area is safe before hand of course

When they’ve started to pull them selves up on the furniture, you can start exposing them to a slab ( less than 90
degrees) climbing surface, whether it be a piece of rock outside or at your local climbing gym is up to you.

Walking Toddler

Most parents I’ve seen or heard of don’t allow their kids to crawl on the furniture, so getting your little one ready to climb is just another excuse to get to your local park with a jungle gym. Kids use their whole bodies during free play like this, which is perfect for building strength, endurance, and body awareness.

When around boulders, rock faces, and the like, lead by example and show them how fun climbing can be. Encourage their participation while being very diligent about safety. The transition from hands on supervision to hands off is completely your own judgment call. Head, neck, and spine injuries are as serious as they come, so supervise accordingly. That being said; minor bumps, scrapes, and bruises build resilience and confidence.

Resisting Fear and Embracing Resilience: Kids and Risk in the Outdoors by Tommy Barton III for Hike it Baby

Pre-School- Jr High

Many companies now make climbing helmets and harnesses that fit toddlers up to 11 or so years old. It’s a solid
investment if climbing is something you want to pass on to your kid(s).

Climbing gyms are exploding in popularity all over the world. If they are a quality gym, they’ll have some way for kids to climb. Whether it’s kids specific bouldering hours, top rope with parents, or even climbing camps and teams, climbing indoors is a great controlled setting to learn and enjoy climbing.

Real rock is a whole different realm of climbing. Not only do you have to deal with the environmental, personal, and
communal risk factors as with all things outdoors, you also have risk that is unique to climbing outdoors. Skill and technique are not something to be taken lightly. Whether its top roping a 15 foot wall or sport climbing a wall several stories tall, you need to know your stuff. If you can’t build a redundant anchor or know how to check if an anchor is properly redundant, don’t let you kid climb it. If you can’t lead a route in the rain and in the dark with just your climbing partner, I wouldn’t take your kid up it even on the best weather day.


Resisting Fear and Embracing Resilience: Kids and Risk in the Outdoors by Tommy Barton III for Hike it Baby


When your tot can touch the ground while straddling it, they are ready for a balance bike. Balance bikes, or bikes made for kids that do not have pedals, are relatively new and they are a game changer.

Many local mountain bike trails have the easiest of easy beginner skills areas, but just riding around your yard with your tot in tow will do the trick. They should always at least wear a helmet and it wouldn’t hurt to wear knee and elbow pads too. They may not really need the extra pads, but getting them use to wearing protection now will make it less difficult in the future when pads are more necessary.

I learned how to ride a pedal bike without training wheels at three years old. My boy got his balance bike for his first
birthday, but you know what? It’s “all good” if he doesn’t learn to ride a pedal bike until he’s in grade school. Kids have different abilities and interests at different times. Exposure and play is key.

Grade school

Remember how exciting and how freeing it was when you got the hang of driving a car? Multiply that feeling by a million, and that’s what a bike is like for a kid.

If you go on Youtube, there are kids under ten years old capable of back flips among other tricks on a bike. Some kids just want their bike to be utilitarian and ride to their friends’ house or around the yard with their dog. Whatever they use their bike for, just make sure they learn how to respect themselves and respect others by being safe. Teach your kid the fine line between practicing a new skill and doing things that are too dangerous. Having a foundation of risk management skills in other aspects of our children’s lives will help them not succumb to peer pressure and hit a jump that is too big or ride too far away from home.

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Photos courtesy of Tommy Barton III. Graphic Courtesy of Alex Tebow.

As always, Hike it Baby encourages you to use your best judgement. You alone know if your kid can handle climbing, hiking or biking a certain trail. 

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