“We want our kids to develop the skills to pick themselves up when they fall, to know when to ask for help, but also to be confident that they can solve a lot of their problems themselves.” (1)
Risk, what does it mean to you? Do you watch every move and wince when a child gets a graze on their knee or falls off their bike? Do you perceive risk as a ‘bad thing’? In reality, children need to take essential risks. Wrapping children in cotton wool and hovering over their every move is not the healthy option.
In fact, the removal of risky play should come with a warning sign of danger! The less risk our children are exposed to, the more risk-averse and less resilient they may become. ‘Helicopter’ parenting often forces children indoors, away from perceived danger, away from freedom and ultimately, away from learning. During the pandemic, opportunities for independence and creativity have been further and dramatically reduced.
My childhood was spent with huge swathes of time outside, roaming round the countryside with siblings or friends. Such freedom was accompanied with warnings: Be careful! Don’t hurt yourselves! As both mother and teacher, I have found myself mirroring the language spoken over me as a child and have had to make adjustments as to how I speak about risk to children around me.
“The creative and intelligent individuals we are going to need to solve the world’s problems in the future will only be able to rise to such challenges if the liberal attitudes they learn as young children are both creative and imaginative so that each child’s physical prowess expands alongside their independence and self-belief.” (2)
Our children need liberty, and liberal attitudes! Children need to learn open mindedness, and have the physical and mental freedom to explore, escape and have adventures. In this way, children learn vital things about their own capabilities and judgements – life skills that transform adulthood.
Our own attitude towards risk will affect those around us. How risk-averse/confident are we? In what areas?
Carry out the risk mindset analysis below on yourself. Then, observing the children in your setting, use the same quiz. Notice how some children may be more risk-averse in some areas and less so in others.
Language around risk
Children need to hear both ‘supportive’ and ‘challenging’ language when taking risks. As they test new waters and try out new skills, encouraging and reassuring language demonstrates faith and trust in children’s capabilities and skills, whilst challenging language encourages them to step out of their comfort zones.
Language around risk can therefore be broken down into the following:
Look, a step!
Look, sharp stones!
Look, hot water!
Do you need more room?
Do you want me to help?
Let’s find a place where we can throw these stones.
Are you feeling ok?
Are you having fun?
This is the quiet zone. Come over here if you need a break.
Would you like to have a go?
Would you like another go?
Let’s see how we can make this work.
I love how you are doing this
You’re doing such a great job.
You can do it!
Shall we try to balance on this?
Could you try climbing over there?
Could you ride your bike along here?
2. Role modelling
I’m going to have a go.
Try it like this.
Shall we try it together?
3. Develop the risk
Do you think you could go higher?
Let’s cycle round again!
Where shall we jump next?
Risk and uncertainty are part and parcel of a healthy lifestyle. Protecting children from risk is not being protective! Instead, it allows anxiety and fear to build. Half of anxiety disorders begin before the age of 11. There are many reasons for this, with over-involved parenting being one of them. Anxious children are much less likely to take risks. In short, anxiety about risk-taking actively impacts the ability to confront risks.
During the pandemic emotional disorders, particularly anxiety, have increased by a whopping 49%. Right now, more than ever, we need to provide plenty of supervised yet rich opportunities for children to step out and be brave; to create times for adventurous play where children can learn about coping with uncertainty and to offer long stretches of freedom. Such play is by nature both exciting and exhilarating, with an element of joyful fear. Bravery comes more naturally in this sort of environment, rewarded with satisfaction and fulfilment. And throughout this positive framework of risk and boldness, let’s speak support and challenge in equal measure as we encourage children to be brave.
Let’s give children freedom to take risks, make mistakes and ultimately, make a difference! When children learn how to manage risk, their self-esteem soars, they start to embrace more opportunities and crucially, are able to become confident and independent learners.
- 50 Risks to Take with Your Kids”, 2021. Daisy Turnbull
- Risk, Challenge and Adventure in the Early Years”, 2015. Kathryn Solly
Helen Garnett is a mother of 4, and a committed and experienced early years consultant. She has a wealth of experience in teaching, both in the primary and early years sectors. She co-founded a pre-school in 2005 where she developed a keen interest in early intervention, leading her into international work for the early years sector. Helen cares passionately about young children and connection. As a result, she wrote her first book, “Developing Empathy in the Early Years: a guide for practitioners” for which she won the Professional Books category at the 2018 Nursery World Awards, and “Building a Resilient Early Years Workforce”, published by Early Years Alliance in June 2019. She also writes articles for early years magazines, such as Nursery World, Early Years Teacher Organisation, QA Education, Teach Early Years, and Early Years Educator.
Helen is the co-founder and Education Director at Arc Pathway, an early years platform for teachers and parents.
Helen can be contacted via LinkedIn.