TAKING A RISK
By Joanne Esser
Part of our mission as a nature-based preschool is allowing children the freedom to engage in “risky play.” Why risky play?
Children are naturally drawn to physical challenges: climbing trees or tall structures, going fast on a tricycle, jumping off high places, lifting heavy objects, using real tools, balancing on narrow beams. All these challenges contain a little element of danger, and the children know that. The right combination of fear and excitement leads to thrill and accomplishment as they try something new.
Children benefit tremendously from taking risks. Given time, choice, multiple opportunities, and, when needed, a bit of modeling and encouragement, children find success at their own levels. They develop competence, confidence and resilience that can’t be “taught” from the outside.
At All Seasons, we love to watch children spy an opportunity to take a risk. I’ve observed this at our Eagan preschool when children first see the retaining wall near the pond. A wall made of large square bricks set in rows, each row recessed just enough from the row below to provide small toeholds, it is perfect for climbing. When children see the wall, they get a particular gleam in their eyes; they approach it with awe. It won’t be easy, but we can see their motivation to conquer it!
The teacher’s role is to scan the area for hazards (obstacles the children might miss), set some upper limits for safety, (“You can climb this high…”) and stay nearby. It’s up to each child to figure out what they want to try, assessing the risk as well as figuring out how long they’ll persist. Children who have had many climbing experiences immediately decide where they’ll start, grabbing hold and hoisting themselves up, digging in with confidence. Some children will begin at the shortest end of the wall, testing themselves by climbing up just one or two rows high. That’s good practice. Others might simply watch, preferring to study the challenge before they begin. Teachers stay close but do not lift or boost children up beyond where they can go on their own.
It’s hard for adults to say no when children ask for “help” with a physical challenge. We want them to have an immediate experience of happiness. But the child’s own accomplishment is what builds their sense of competence. They must practice persistence, not giving up when they don’t get it right away. They decide for themselves what they are ready to try today and what they might try tomorrow. Their sense of joy and pride is huge when they experience success, knowing they did it on their own. That can’t happen if someone does it for them.
Teachers also observe many instances when an experienced child “coaches” another child, giving them advice about where to place their hands or feet, offering encouragement. Classmates notice and show authentic excitement when someone in the group reaches a new personal level of accomplishment. Teachers model this delight: “Look! Jack made it up higher than he ever has before!” “Nora is going to try climbing for the first time. Can anyone show her how you get started?” The support (not pressure) of the group is surprisingly powerful in helping a child overcome hesitation.
What’s beautiful about watching children choose to engage in risky physical play is knowing that the effects of success at one task carry over to other kinds of risk-taking. Children’s growing confidence supports them to risk asking a new friend to play, making eye contact with an adult and saying “Good morning,” or being willing to try a new art activity in the studio. This is the kind of growth that will support them when facing challenges throughout their lives.