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December 1, 2009

A Place for Healthy Risk-Taking

At Francis W. Parker Charter Essential School, Wellness classes combine challenge and choice to help adolescent students grow.
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Eating sushi. Talking with your parents about drugs or alcohol. Playing basketball.After each of these prompts, the students in my Wellness class rearrange themselves in a series of concentric circles that indicate their comfort level with the action described. I use this activity, called challenge circles, in the first week of school to set the stage for the coming year.
First, I create three concentric circles using ropes or cones on the floor. The inner circle is comfort, the middle isstretch or risk, and the outer circle ispanic. Then I ask students to stand in the circle that represents their comfort level when asked to do a range of activities. We start off with relatively innocuous activities (eating pizza) and then ramp it up (talking with your parents about sex; telling a close friend you disagree with him or her). Finally, I connect it back to Wellness class and to physical activity using such prompts asrunning the mile for fitness testing orgetting sweaty in class.
At the end of this activity, students have seen the wide range of comfort levels within our class. One student might feel completely at ease taking free throws but be sent right into the panic zone by something like swimming in the ocean. Playing soccer, with those hard balls flying through the air, is scary for many students, but it can be a place of true comfort for an athlete. Challenge circles are a great reminder for middle school students that what is true for them may not be true for their classmates.
Early adolescents are often described as developmentally egocentric, meaning that they struggle to differentiate between their own thoughts and the perspectives of others and often feel as though they are on stage, being constantly watched and judged by their peers. So seeing this visual demonstration of the differences in how their classmates perceive risk and comfort can be especially powerful. To debrief the circles activity, I ask questions like, Were we ever all standing in the same circle at the same time? What were some of the similarities or differences in our group? In which circle do you think the most learning occurs?

At Their Own Pace

Risk and challenge are an integral part of Wellness classes at the Francis W. Parker Charter Essential School in Devens, Massachusetts, where all 7th–10th graders attend these classes four days a week. We ask students to push themselves—to try new things that challenge their sense of comfort, but without the threat of actual harm. Our Wellness program includes an integrated curriculum combining aspects of health classes with physical education, games, and fitness. We offer a mixture of conventional games such as floor hockey and soccer and more unusual activities such as rock climbing, yoga, walks, and large-group tag.
The three full-time Wellness teachers frame activities so that students understand their range of options for participation and entry. When teaching middle school students to play football, for instance, I often remind them that they don't have to be able to throw a perfect spiral to be successful. I encourage them to see the fun and strategy in making up new plays or working with their team to trick the offense or defense.
For sports like this, I often split my classes in half, letting one group of kids play competitively while taking a smaller group of students aside to provide more explicit instruction and a less threatening introduction to the game. This helps students enter into the curriculum at their own place. When they are comfortable and exhibit some mastery, we can push them to go just a little further.
You don't need a ropes course to explore risk-taking or challenge. Any physical activity can involve risk—from trying yoga, to using an exercise ball for the first time, to pushing yourself to play all-out in a game of Frisbee even when you're worried about looking stupid in front of your friends. Our students complete "the dreaded mile run" twice a year to assess their cardiovascular fitness, and this event comes at a time in their lives when they are acutely aware of their own bodies and sensitive to how others perceive them. For teenagers (and some adults), running when they think that others might be watching can be a trying proposition, and we need to acknowledge the social and emotional chances our students are taking.
As a public charter school, we enroll approximately 75 new students each year through a lottery system. As these students enter Parker from more than 40 different schools and towns, I've heard them say things like, "I'm not good at gym," or "I'm just not athletic." I've always felt that my mission was to dispel those assumptions. For me, physical activity classes have become less a place for students to learn to throw a softball well, and more a place for them to learn to throw aside some assumptions about themselves and practice taking risks.

Challenge by Choice

At Parker, we use the Adventure Curriculum for Physical Education series developed by Project Adventure ( as the foundation of much of our program (Panicucci, 2007; Panicucci, Constable, Hunt, Kohut, &amp; Rheingold, 2002–2003). That organization's Challenge by Choice philosophy recognizes that any activity or goal poses a different level of challenge for each person and that authentic personal change comes from within. Challenge by Choice<BQ>creates an environment where participants are asked to search for opportunities to stretch and grow during the experience. [Students learn] how to set goals that are in neither the comfort nor the panic zone, but in that slightly uncomfortable stretch zone where the greatest opportunities for growth and learning lie. (Project Adventure, n.d)</BQ>
Incorporating this viewpoint into our physical education classroom offers a new way of thinking about how to assess students' needs and how to work in what psychologist Lev Vygotsky called the zone of proximal development—the place where optimal learning can occur (Nakkula &amp; Toshalis, 2006).
For example, we play volleyball in groups of mixed gender, age, and ability. A student with solid ball-handling skills might be ready to try working with others to get the ball over the net using strategy instead of just slamming it back toward the other team; another student might be struggling to serve underhand, so I might let him or her throw the ball over the net instead of serving. Although I dread the phrase "I can't," I've learned to work with it. "You can't play volleyball?" I respond. "That's a big statement. Can you throw the ball? Can you help with the rotation? Have you tried learning to serve? To bump? To set?" We start from the beginning, and although not every student will become Olympian Misty May-Treanor, they often find out they are actually pretty good at something they would never have guessed they would be.

Teens Need to Play

In our Wellness program, we have taken the idea of Challenge by Choice one step further by working to adopt this mind-set throughout the year. We believe that learning to take healthy risks is particularly appropriate for teenagers.
In the Western world, the term adolescence is often viewed as synonymous withbad decisions—early sexual encounters, reckless driving, parties without parental supervision, and other impulsive deeds done without regard for consequences. We know that the teenage years are tumultuous, that middle schoolers teeter between childlike and adultlike behavior, and that high schoolers often push the limits of the rules.
In The Romance of Risk, Lynn Ponton (1997) states that "risk-taking is the major tool that adolescents use to shape their identities" (p. 275). She emphasizes that parents (and, we can safely assume, teachers) need to "promote opportunities for their adolescents to undertake positive challenges, not simply as an alternative to more dangerous risks but also because of their intrinsic value in contributing to the development of healthy, confident adults" (p. 280).
Cynthia Lightfoot (1997) suggests in The Culture of Adolescent Risk-Taking that sharing risks offers a way for adolescents to show a new side of themselves to others and to recreate themselves in relationship with their peers. Lightfoot considers adolescent risk behaviors a developmentally natural form of play, just as normal as imaginative or fantasy play in elementary school children.
Generally, as students move up in grade level, the amount of play that schools provide or encourage significantly decreases. Yet teens are in desperate need of creative play. Their transition between childhood and adulthood—wavering back and forth from dependence to independence—means that they still need to be able to relax, be silly, and act like kids. If adolescents naturally play by searching for novel and exciting experiences that make them feel alive and that bring them closer to their peers, doesn't it make sense to try to channel this developmental need into positive activities at school?
Many of the social aspects of our physical activity classes can replicate some features of traditional play, as students negotiate rules and develop ways to act toward one another. By offering activities like capture the flag or other games that allow for spontaneity, flexible thinking, and imagination, we can begin to integrate opportunities for risk-taking and play into our classes.

Bringing Risk-Taking into P.E.

Although fitness and sports should be an important part of a comprehensive physical education program, we can go beyond the traditional P.E. class—not only by changing the activities we offer, but also by changing our own mind-set, attitude, and expectations. We can't do this well, however, in schools where students take physical education for only one term a year, or where teachers are expected to get to know 200–500 students. Although class ratios in many schools may be capped at 25–30 students per teacher, many physical education teachers see individual students only briefly as they rotate through "specials" for one quarter of their year.
As a member of the Coalition of Essential Schools founded by Theodore R. Sizer (, Parker is guided by the belief that teachers should know students well. Our abilities to assess the needs of each student, to have honest and timely conversations, and to build trust are directly related to our small student loads.
An emphasis on differentiated instruction also helps. Instead of requiring that all students approach physical games in exactly the same way, we should acknowledge that students have different learning styles and proficiency levels. Why not offer students a tee to hit the softball, or operate on the principle that there are no strike-outs and that the score doesn't matter?
During a game of kickball, 7th grader Katie said to me, "I'm not kicking. Jackie will do it for me; I just want to run." Such a request isn't unusual, and I told her it was OK. Instead of letting her off the hook for the entire game, however, I spent a few minutes chatting with her about what exactly was keeping her from kicking—a long list that included fear that she would stub her toe, that she would miss the ball completely, and that she would look "stupid" and "everyone would laugh." Kickball puts the kicker in a visible and vulnerable place with everyone watching as he or she steps up to the plate.
After our conversation and some encouragement from her friends, Katie eventually agreed to kick. She missed the ball her first time, kicked a foul backwards over our heads the second time, and grazed the ball for a single on her third try. No one laughed. Life went on. I think she will remember moments like these, as I do, and know that she has the potential to try something that she might not immediately be good at. When we take the time to develop a strong sense of community and safety in our classes, we help make such moments possible.
Leaving a few minutes at the end of class to debrief sports activities can further strengthen the norm of exploring possibilities and encourage students to approach novel experiences with confidence instead of fear. One of the tools that I often use for such debriefing is called Captain, Crew, and Passenger. We take turns going around the circle, saying what role we most often took on during the previous activity—captain, meaning any kind of leadership role; crew, working or helping the group to succeed; orpassenger, just listening and going along for the ride.
The message I aim to send is that there is no value judgment on these roles—we certainly couldn't be successful with 26 captains! Then, I ask the students in my classes to think about taking on different roles in future games. If they are most comfortable being a captain, I ask them to "try just listening next time. Let someone else take over. It might be hard, but it's worth trying." In the same way, I encourage habitual passengers to speak up and try out a more active role.
Finally, as educators we need to model healthy risk-taking for students. I'm relatively comfortable teaching in front of large groups, answering detailed questions about sexuality, and making a fool of myself playing games that sometimes involve clucking like a chicken or howling like a wolf. However, I also perform on the flying trapeze, and my nervousness before shows can bring me almost to tears. Having this experience of walking the line between stretching myself and full-out panic has made me more sensitive to the way students experience my class, and I make sure to share my own stories like this throughout the year.
We don't all need to fly through the air or jump out of airplanes to demonstrate our willingness to take risks—we can be silly, sing in public, laugh at ourselves, and simply let our students see us try out new lessons we aren't sure will work. Kids know when we let ourselves be vulnerable, and although it's almost guaranteed that they won't congratulate us at that moment, they will remember—and they will be more likely to let themselves be vulnerable in the future.

Providing Safe Places to Take Risks

Most of us have never mastered anything without practice. By providing spaces in school where teens can develop and nurture a sense of creativity, where they can be playful and innovative with their learning, and where we reassure them that it's OK to be less than perfect, we are offering them a chance to practice risk-taking.
Reenvisioning physical education class as a place where educators can scaffold activities to provide appropriate levels of physical, social, and emotional challenge to students may be a new approach in many schools, where the goals of physical education are more often structured around increasing student fitness, building skills in specific sports, or simply allowing students to burn off excess energy. But adolescents in the throes of emerging identity urgently need opportunities for healthy risk-taking.
Before self- and peer-assigned labels like "jock" or "geek" become entrenched in adolescents' emerging sense of identity, we should challenge their notions of what they can and cannot do. Students should be learning not only how to build their repertoire of physical skills, but also how to interact with their peers in a playful way and how to practice safe ways to fulfill their developmentally appropriate need to take risks. As physical educators, we can cultivate an atmosphere in which students push themselves to new limits, both physically and emotionally, while feeling supported by their classmates and teachers.

Lightfoot, C. (1997). The culture of adolescent risk-taking. New York: Guilford.

Nakkula, M., &amp; Toshalis, E. (2006). Understanding youth: Adolescent development for educators. Cambridge: Harvard Education Press.

Panicucci, J. (2007). Achieving fitness: An adventure activity guide, middle school to adult. Beverly, MA: Project Adventure.

Panicucci, J., with Constable, N., Hunt, L, Kohut, A., &amp; Rheingold, A. (2002–2003).Adventure curricula for physical education series. Beverly, MA: Project Adventure.

Ponton, L. (1997). The romance of risk: Why teenagers do the things they do. New York: Basic Books.

Project Adventure. (n.d.). Glossary of terms. Available:

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