Very soon it will be that time of year again when young children are in the outdoors busy exploring the world through the only way that they know how, play. It is through these very moments when children are able to learn, grow and develop across all areas- physical, cognitive, social and emotional. In a nutshell, one could say that play provides a safe context for children to learn about the world around them and gain skills and dispositions necessary for adulthood. However, in the past two decades, research has proved that children’s play is becoming more and more restricted due to adult’s perceptions of what is considered dangerous or risky, rather than giving children the freedom to judge situations for themselves in an environment which is safe as necessary, rather than as safe as possible.
So what actually is risk taking you might ask? Risk taking can be defined as a behaviour in which there is uncertainty about the outcomes of the behaviour. It requires a consideration of the benefits against the possible undesirable consequences of the behaviour as well as the probability of success or failure. It is an exciting and thrilling activity that involves a risk of physical injury and provides opportunities for challenge, testing limits and exploring boundaries.
Children frequently engage in many risk taking behaviours such as climbing, swinging, hanging and sliding and not only are these enjoyable for children, but they are crucial for their motor development. Research has identified that children engage in this form of play due to the feelings associated with this such as excitement, thrill, pride and achievement. Why wouldn’t young children want to engage in this type of play? Nevertheless, risk taking has been cast in a negative light and it is now considered that by removing risks, children will be able to play in a safer environment. This is a “dangerous” perspective as it fails to recognise the benefits in which risk taking has on children’s learning.
Children both need and want to take risks in order to learn new skills, explore their limits and to reach their potential. Through exposure to carefully managed risks, children are able to gain mastery and a sense of accomplishment thus further encouraging them to face new challenges. As they experience both success and failure children are motivated to try again and work out different ways of doing things. Exposure to carefully managed risks supports children to learn sound judgement in assessing risks for themselves, hence building confidence, resilience and self-belief, all of which are qualities that are important for building independence. Thoughtful risk taking also encourages children to be better equipped to jump at life’s opportunities and to rebound from life’s disappointments.
There is no doubt that the safety of children as they grow and develop is our prime concern for teachers and parents alike. Much of the research identifies our fears of potential injury as teachers and parents, is what denies children the opportunity to engage in these valuable experiences that facilitate children’s learning and development. Our goal as adults should be to find ways in which we can manage risks rather than seeking to eliminate them. The risk we pose by creating an unstimulating environment is that children may place themselves at greater risk of injury when they seek some excitement back into an activity. Hazards, on the other hand, which are objects or situations that a child is not expected to comprehend, see, or foresee should be eliminated to ensure that children can still satisfy their natural curiosity to take risks without compromising their safety.
It is vital that children have opportunities to learn from their actions and how to keep themselves safe. This may mean a few extra bumps and bruises along the way as they fall over, slip or land awkwardly whilst trying to balance across a beam, but this is when your positive attitude towards accidents comes into play. Next time this happens, make sure that you stop and talk to your child about what happened and discuss alternatives rather than preventing your child from engaging in the activity or using the piece of equipment again.