'To a small child, the world is not just a magical place full of wonder, it’s effectively a series of mysteries to be navigated…'

Risk-taking and Resilience

29th December 2017

Risk is associated with danger, of course, but Lisa Botwright argues that it can be a good thing, and that it’s essential in helping children to develop a happier and ‘safer’ approach to life…

When I first heard about teaching toddlers to assess risks, it made me smile – conjuring up images of earnest mini health and safety officers wearing hard hats and clutching clipboards. But the reality is that this concept is integral to preparing young children to successfully navigate the perils and pitfalls of everyday life.

The problem is that allowing children to take risks goes completely against the grain. For parents, babysitters, minders and teachers – for anyone caring for a small child – the fundamental instinct is to keep them from harm. However, children need to take risks to learn how to manage them: it’s an essential part of growing up, and something we need to recognise as adults, in order to try and take a conscious step back from our impulse to rush in and protect them, whatever they’re doing.

Sarah Stent and Nicky Butler, directors of locally-based Jigsaw Nurseries, believe passionately in the importance of free play – allowing children to explore their environment in an unstructured way – tapping into a child’s natural curiosity and crucial for developing their problem-solving skills, confidence, resilience, and social and motor skills. “Children are much more adaptable when they’re younger. If they’ve never been encouraged to take risks, then they’ll never understand their limitations,” explains Sarah. It’s evident that little accidents are important to stop them having big accidents.

This isn’t about wilfully allowing children to place themselves in harmful or dangerous situations, but about giving children the tools to keep themselves safe – for example, allowing them to use scissors, but teaching them not to run with them – or showing them how to use a stick to measure the depth of pond, before letting them jump in with their wellies on. “In our nature areas, parents worry that their children will pick up creepy crawlies and put them in their mouth… but children must be given the freedom to explore nature and to discover ‘mini beasts’. It’s very unlikely that they’ll eat one,” Sarah points out.

The Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) statutory framework, which all schools and Ofsted-registered early years providers must follow, says that ‘providers must take all reasonable steps to ensure staff and children in their care are not exposed to risks and must be able to demonstrate how they are managing risks.’ But it also encourages practitioners ‘to provide play experiences that enables children to expand their knowledge and skills to support their individual learning and development in their early years.’

There’s a big difference between danger and risk, clarifies Nicky. “It’s our job to ensure the premises and equipment are as safe as possible, and we regularly check for hazards. We ensure the children are well-supervised, with at least the government-recommended staff to children ratios. But I sometimes feel that people have become overly-fixated with safeguarding, and that there’s a blame culture. I’ve seen over the years that a lot of nursery settings have reduced their provision for free play, and have become too structured.”

Even the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), the advisory body responsible for keeping us all safe in the workplace, have weighed into the debate, by going on record as saying, ‘We must not lose sight of the important developmental role of play in pursuit of the unachievable goal of absolute safety… HSE understands and accepts that children will often be exposed to play environments which, while well managed, carry a degree of risk and sometimes potential danger.’ They underline this by saying, ‘We want to make sure that mistaken health and safety concerns do not create sterile play environments that lack challenge and so prevent children from expanding their learning and stretching their abilities.’   

“Sometimes we have to explain to parents why we’ve made certain decisions,” continues Nicky. “Like why we’ve chosen to lay tarmac in our outdoor play areas, rather than something more soft and cushioned. Children need to learn that if they run on tarmac and fall over it will hurt; otherwise how will they ever be ready for the school playground?”

Sarah tells me how children are taught safety in age-appropriate stages. “We wouldn’t put tiny things out that children could choke on in our two year old room, but this would be fine in the three year old room. We wouldn’t give a two year old a knife, but by the age of three, children are cutting up their own fruit for their morning snack. After all, they need to know how to use cutlery.”

To a small child, the world is not just a magical place full of wonder, it’s effectively a series of mysteries to be navigated. The same drive that propels a baby to take their first steps is the same one that makes a child hurl themselves head-first down a slide. Although there’s an inbuilt sense of wariness in children, there’s also that hunger for the thrill of being on the edge of danger. “We see this in babies’ delight in being thrown up in the air, or in young children balancing along a wobbly bridge,” explains Helen Tovey, Lecturer in Early Years Studies at the University of Roehampton. Her concern, and one shared by many other education professionals, is that children who spend too much time indoors, or in adult-directed play, fail to learn safe boundaries, and can end up either too reckless, putting themselves and others in danger, or overly fearful and anxious. She gives the example of one nursery that planted teasels and thistles, and left a patch of stinging nettles in their garden for under-threes. The setting reported that the two year olds were both fascinated and fearful of the prickly sensation of the plants. They quickly learned to avoid the stinging nettles, but kept returning to them, even fixing clothes pegs to the stalks. “There is evidence that risk and challenge in a supportive environment is positively linked with emotional well-being, resilience and mental health and that small mistakes and minor accidents can offer protection against the negative effects of future failure,” Helen maintains.

“Parents often come to me to ask how they can prepare their children for school,” Nicky confides. “They ask about how they can get them ahead in their reading and writing, say, or worry that they’re not really to sit still in the classroom. But one of the most important things we can do is teach our children to ‘have a go’. My advice is to take children outside, get them running, jumping, crawling through tunnels – and don’t pick them up every time they fall. Allow children the space to create their own imaginary world, and don’t pass on misplaced anxieties. Don’t wrap them in cotton wool, but do teach them strategies for minimising risk.”

Helen Tovey points out that risk underpins much of our creative and scientific thinking, and is integral to the way we learn. We ‘hazard a guess’, ‘dare’ to be different and take imaginative ‘leaps’.

And so the irony is that in teaching our children to aim high, we must also allow them to fall… and we must also recognise the danger in allowing our children to be too safe.

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