The Last Greatest Risk in Early Childhood

gross motor gross motor skills play based learning risky play Dec 07, 2021

I want you to think really hard about something.  I am going to pose a question and I want you to think about it.  Move your eyes away from the screen, and actually think. Are you ready?  Here is the question:

What is the last physical risk we celebrate 100% in young children?  Think back to your own kiddos’ lives or the children in your care and think about the last greatest risk that is 100% supported and celebrated by adults in the lives of children.  Go think.

Are you ready for the answer?  Learning to walk.  This is the last, greatest physical risk we allow children to take fully without any adult anxiety.  Without any, “Wait, stops” or “Be carefuls”  Or “no, that’s dangerous” types of words and phrases to go along with it.  We trust our littlest humans to take that bigggggg risk, bigger than any they’ve ever taken before.  We cheer them on.  We smile and clap, we stand nearby and wait patiently with our phone camera in hand to capture the moment.  They fall down and we cheer for them to get back up.  We allow them space and encouragement.  We give them time because we know we can’t force them to learn how to walk.  We ensure the area they are walking in is free from big hazards, moving the coffee table to the side so that they don’t bonk their head on the corner.  We offer a finger to start and gently guide them in their process of putting all of the moving parts together.

Learning to walk is the last, greatest physical risk we fully embrace and celebrate in life.  Of course, this is generally speaking, as we know there are many caregivers and parents out there that know the benefits of risk taking in childhood and fully embrace and support it.  But, generally speaking, many adults don’t know the benefits of risk and may not even realize their own fears and anxiety are limiting their child’s growth and development by trying to make their world risk free - either because they want their children to be protected from the world or because it is easier to say “no” than to support a child through a big risk.  

I realized this a few weeks ago when I was preparing for an online session keynote.  I had a thought run though my head, “I wonder when is the last time that the majority of adults support a risk in childhood.”  It took a minute to think back and come up with an answer.  The last greatest (physical) risk we fully support is learning to walk.  But, what about the rest of life?  What if we supported all risk like we support learning to walk?  What would our children turn out to be like?  What would our world look like?  I am left with way more questions than answers, but I can tell you a few things.  I can tell you that risk is necessary for proper growth and development.  A childhood or life without risk is like never learning to hold a pencil.  What if we placed the same amount of energy supporting risk as we do supporting the fine motor skills necessary to hold a pencil?

Why is risk taking important, and especially physical risk?  I could go on forever about this, but, I’ll make it quick and simple so I can get to some actionable ways to help you support risk taking in your environment, no matter where you are in your play based learning journey.

Risk taking is AS IMPORTANT as learning to hold a crayon.  Risk taking helps develop self-esteem, self-confidence, self regulation (like, “how high can i climb before I can’t turn around anymore?”), problem solving skills, tolerance for failure, and of course gross motor and fine motor development.

I have found that it is much easier to support risk taking in a play based learning environment.  Why?  Because we have TIME!  And you need time to support children in their risk taking endeavors.

Here are 3 tips to help you settle into supporting physical risk taking so that you can ensure the children in your care have more, last greatest risks in life, beyond learning to walk!

  1.  Fifteen Seconds.  The 15 second rule.  If you see a child starting to engage in a ohyscial risk, and there is no imminent danger or hazaards around take 15 seconds.  Stand close, but not too close, and give them 15 seconds to see what their plan is.  You can always ask “What is your plan?”  or “Does that feel safe?”.  But don’t immediately intervene.  This will allow you to get a gauge for what they are capable of and allow the child to figure out what is comfortable for their body.
  2. Be “safe as necessary” instead of “as safe as possible”.  If we take on the “Learn to walk mindset” we can get this right!  Treat other risk as you would treat a baby or toddler learning to walk.  We don’t hover and say “STOP, don’t do that “ when a baby is learning to walk.  We stand close by and offer support only when needed.  This is the mindset we need to have in the early chilhdood classroom!
  3. Say yes.  If you can find ways to say yes to things, you will be taking steps to better supporting risk in your environment.  If a child finds a log outdoors and it may have a bit of ice on it and look slippery, instead of saying “no, get down” to that risk taking opportunity, think about how you could say yes.  It could be “I am here if it starts to feel unsafe” or “this looks slippery and unsafe, can we find another area for balancing that doesn’t have ice on it?”.  

There you have it.  Three ways to embrace physical risk taking in early childhood environments.  Let’s now allow the last greatest risk to be learning to walk.  If we take away risk in childhood, we are taking away valuable learning experiences!   From now on, please vow to never let learning to walk be the last, greatest risk in childhood.

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