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  • Writer's pictureTiffany Chacon

The Importance of Risk in Early Childhood Education

Risk. A scary word when you're thinking about the youngest members of our community. When I think of risk, the images that picture into my head are climbing a tree that is too high (or thin), carrying a giant rock that may fall on a little foot, and running with a long and pokey stick. Do these images cause you to feel uneasy?

When we are looking at child development there is a bit of a battle between what is too risky or hazardous, and when is there no risk or challenge. I can't wait to share with you the benefits of age appropriate risk and how parents and caregivers can provide stimulating risk taking opportunities.

What is risk?

I love this description of risky play:

Risky play is defined as thrilling and challenging forms of play

that involve a risk of physical injury (Sandseter, 2007). This kind

of play most often takes place outdoors and in children’s free

play. More specifically, risky play is categorized into the

following six categories aiming to describe how children

engage in this kind of play: a) play in great heights; b) play

with high speed; c) play with dangerous tools; d) play near

dangerous elements; e) rough-and-tumble play; and f) play

where children can disappear/get lost (Sandseter, 2007)

Now if that made you uneasy while you were reading, know that you are not alone. We have grown (hopefully) into adults that know how to avoid dangerous risks. But how did we learn this? Free play that allows children to take safe risks is the perfect time to gain self-confidence and a better understanding of the risks in our environment. Check out this video for a sweet description on risky play in the early childhood setting.

The Science Behind Risk

When our children are involved in open play that allows for a "safe" risk, children are strengthening self confidence, resiliency, executive functioning abilities and even risk-management skills. Scientists and early childhood educators have taken a focus on risk and have found that the right amount of risk experience positive emotions such as fun, enjoyment, thrill, pride and self-confidence (Coster & Gleeve, 2008).

Now when we talk about risky play, we are not talking about playing freely near a busy street, or running around carrying saws. When we talk about risk, we are talking about risk that children can manage, with support from a caregiver. If there is not appropriate guidance and support during risky play children can have a negative and unpleasant experience such as fear, anxiety, and sometimes even injury. The level of the thrill of the risk needs to be high to be able to attain the intense positive experiences. The more "scary" and "thrilling" the risk that is mastered, the more intense the positive feeling of success is. Children love to experience play that is both scary and fun at the same time.

This table has a few examples on what risky play might look like with a child.

Risk Taking at Preschool

Understanding the importance of risk taking for appropriate development in young children is very important in the development of a strong preschool program. At our center we are sure to allow students ample opportunities for risky play while ensuring that there is a strong supporter guiding the activities. The best time for a child to learn is not when they are doing something that is easy, or when something is too hard. The best learning happens in the Zone of Proximal Development, when tasks are hard, but able for self mastery with slight help. In other words, when we encourage children to stretch. We allow students to experience these tasks primarily outside, both on the playground and on our outdoor learning adventures.

Walking through our "Backyard Forest"

Here we can see two children that are developing balancing skills while walking on steep and uneven ground. Add in the extra work of carrying a bucket, and the risk or difficulty is increased.

At the beginning of the year we had many students that were scared to go into our "backyard forest", but were encouraged with appropriate support and are now able to really explore.

Another great example of developing mastery on the playground is when we are riding the bicycles. This is a safe activity, where all children are sure to have proper head protection (helmet). We have a variety of different bicycles including tricycles,balance bikes, scooters, and pedal bikes. This variety allows students to choose the level of their cycling skills and push to try something new. There are many falls, especially on the balance bikes, but the children get back up with a smile every time and keep on trying. We keep an eye on when a student is just about to finish mastering a new risky task. Once they get it, they will immediately look around for an adult or friend to recognize their accomplishment. My favorite phrase at this point is "Wow! You did it! You can do hard things!" Recognizing the accomplishment only encourages children to grow.

While we were out on our "Autumn Adventure" up Bread Trail we were able to allow students a common risky play activity. Finding the perfect stick to carry. Along the walk many kids found a stick that they wanted to carry along with them. Now we all know that walking on an uneven trail can be dangerous with little feet. Tripping on rocks and roots is sure to happen. So how did we ensure that the students were safe, while still enjoying in the play of sticks? We taught them a few rules for safe play. Rule 1: One end of the stick stays on the ground at all times. Rule 2: Sticks fighting shall only touch the other stick, and not our friends. Rule 3: Sticks found on the trail stay on the trail when we are done (and not in the middle of the walkway). By teaching these rules for safety we are allowing the students to practice using the stick for walking, or just to increase the difficulty in balancing on the walk.

Walking down Bread Trail

Remember when you are helping a child to grow, have fun! Show children the joy in exploring and learning, and you will have a motivated learner for life.

For more information on Risky Play I encourage you to check out these great articles.

Risky Play for Children

Children's Risky Play in Early Childhood

Risk Taking in Early Childhood: When is it Appropriate?

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