There is no doubt about it. Extreme sports are cool. That means that inevitably, kids will want to get involved.
Parents are often reluctant to agree and understandably so. There are risks involved in all kinds of outdoor pastimes, from hiking right up to skydiving, but on the other hand anything that gets kids off the couch and engaging in healthy physical activity has to be a good thing.
Just how dangerous is it?
This one depends on the sport in question and how you go about it. Beginner rock climbing with a qualified instructor is actually very safe. It may feel scary but the worst that is likely to happen is a scraped knee or a minor bruise, if that, and there should be no possibility of a major fall.
There are always risks but they can be controlled very carefully with the right knowledge and the right equipment. The same goes for kayaking and canoeing, orienteering, caving, mountain biking, and a number of other outdoor sports at beginner level.
Some extreme sports are just not suitable for kids. BASE jumping and cave diving are two examples where the risks, even to the most experienced adults, are massive and cannot be controlled. In this case you won’t find an instructor willing to take children at all. In some places the minimum age for a bungee jump (with parental consent) is 14 or higher. It’s rare to find a skydiving operator who will allow anyone under 18, or at the very least 16.
If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing properly
The biggest determining factor in whether or not a given outdoor activity is safe for kids is not what they do but the level of instruction they receive. It’s much safer to take your children to an indoor rock climbing center than to have them climbing trees and scrambling up local boulders on their own. Qualified instructors will be able to provide safety equipment and they’ll host group activities in places that are known to be reasonably safe and predictable.
Most indoor climbing centers will welcome children from about 5 years up, but smaller kids will be given special full-body safety harnesses. Dedicated scuba diving programs exist (endorsed by the Professional Associated of Dive Instructors) for kids from 8 years up. The way children are taught to dive is very different from what adult learners do, but they can still get a flavor of what the sport is all about.
Good instructors in any outdoor or extreme sport account for children very carefully and know how to make sure they stay safe and have fun.
Learning about risk and reward
There are some advantages to getting kids involved with extreme sports. A small amount of risk is not always such a bad thing. Sports like climbing and kayaking teach kids (and grown ups) how to calmly assess potential dangers and respond to them appropriately. Either you decide not to take the risk or you commit to it, understanding the consequences. There are some deep life lessons to be learned.
The value of a challenge shouldn’t be underestimated. Getting to the top of a mountain peak takes work, but only by putting the effort in is it possible to enjoy the view from the top. It might take five or six attempts before a child reaches the top of their first rock climbing route but that just means a greater sense of achievement. Easy things are often not the most fun.
Be an example
Outdoor sports are the perfect family activity, especially if you have trouble getting teenagers interested in doing things with their younger siblings. From four or five year up everyone can participate, encourage one another, and have a good time together. And if you’re worried about risk being right there means that you can keep a close eye on your children’s activities.
If you’re not the fittest dad in the world you’ve got even more reason to get involved. Don’t be afraid that you won’t make it to the top of the climbing wall or that you’ll fall off the surfboard. Try, fail, and try again, and you’ll show your kids something important. If you’re a little bit scared but get it 100% anyway, they’ll see something even more valuable.
At the end of the day, it’s up to parents to decide whether or not extreme sports are appropriate for their kids. The dangers and potential rewards are different in every case, but if you’re not sure about a particular activity they want to take part in, why not suggest a different outdoor sport? There are plenty to choose from. It’s always possible to enjoy the outdoors without taking risks you’re not comfortable with.