Encouraging risk-taking in early childhood sets the stage for a lifetime of curiosity, creativity, and adaptability.
Written by: Meg Fitzgerald, Director of Early Childhood
Posted: November 1, 2023
Risk-Taking is Essential in Early Childhood
We believe that teaching our young learners to embrace risk in a supportive environment is crucial for their development and future success. At Bennett, we know that taking risks develops and enhances a child’s self-confidence and their ability to manage and overcome fear. Risk-taking promotes the kind of play that harnesses children’s use of problem-solving skills and self-regulation. Self-regulation has become recognized as foundational in promoting well-being across the lifespan, including educational achievement and physical, emotional, social, and economic health, thus making risk-taking essential in early childhood.
Risk-taking is a fundamental component of a child's cognitive and emotional development. It goes beyond the physical activities like climbing and exploring that we might associate with risk-taking in young children. Healthy risk-taking also involves venturing into the unknown, trying new things, and accepting challenges. Trying a new sport, reaching out to a new peer, pursuing a goal – all involve a level of emotional or physical risk. But what makes these risks different from running across the street without looking, is that the potential rewards outweigh the potential consequences of failing.
When children take risks, they build essential skills, including problem-solving, decision-making, confidence, and resilience. They learn that it's okay to make mistakes and that failure can be a valuable learning experience. Encouraging risk-taking in early childhood sets the stage for a lifetime of curiosity, creativity, and adaptability.
Promoting Risk-Taking in the Classroom
Our teachers play a vital role in fostering healthy risk-taking here at Bennett. Here are a few ways we promote it in our classrooms:
We create a safe, supportive environment where children feel comfortable exploring new activities and ideas. This includes setting up age-appropriate challenges and monitoring activities to ensure safety. Having large ramps, logs, and metal gardening tools in the learning garden conveys an important message to children: We trust that you can handle real tools and heavy play equipment. It also requires careful observation by teachers, supervising the play.
Children might take risks by using art supplies they've never tried before, like using watercolors instead of crayons. They learn to manage the uncertainty of the outcome and embrace the joy of creating something unique.
Teachers encourage children to take risks by offering praise and constructive feedback when they attempt something new. We celebrate effort and persistence, rather than focusing solely on outcomes. “I noticed you have been trying to find a way to build that roof on your structure and a lot of the materials were too heavy and kept crashing it down. But I saw that you kept trying and didn’t give up. I bet it felt extra good when you finally figured out that using the piece of felt as a roof was more stable.”
We encourage children to initiate conversations or play with new peers, which fosters social risk-taking. They may feel anxious or unsure initially but gradually build the confidence to form new friendships. Teachers provide play scripts to help children engage in new relationships, scaffolding play initiation for children and slowly removing it as the year progresses.
For example, a teacher may encourage a child who is standing near the dollhouse watching by saying, “You can say, ‘I like to play with the dollhouse too. Can I join you?’” In addition to classroom teachers promoting these interactions, Ms. Rosenbaum, our Counselor, works with children in whole and small groups to help practice these skills. In Junior Kindergarten (age 4) and Senior Kindergarten (age 5), children developmentally are more driven by social interactions and benefit from direct teaching and practice of these skills.
Our teachers lead by example, showing children that it's okay to make mistakes and learn from them. We encourage a growth mindset, emphasizing that abilities can improve through effort. Recently I overheard a teacher say, “I was trying to get this book for us from the library on my computer, but I don’t know how to project it onto the big screen. So for today, we’ll just have to sit close and look at my computer. I’ve already reached out to Mr. Duncan to see if he has some time to teach me how to get this on the big screen. With his help, I know I’ll learn how soon.”
Making mistakes and acknowledging them in real-time alongside children not only builds their capacity to take risks and make mistakes but also their trust in us as adults.
Public Speaking at Morning Meeting and Community Gathering:
The Responsive Classroom model encourages daily sharing at Morning Meeting. Children are called upon to stand up and orally share with their peers. This may be a prompted share, such as “What did you do over the weekend?” or a reflective share where a student is called upon to share about a project they’ve been working on.
At Friday Community Gatherings, classrooms also have opportunities to share out with the Early Childhood community. This is typically done by a few children standing up and guiding their peers through a learning moment they’ve experienced. When children begin to practice this skill of public speaking from a young age, they not only learn to express themselves in front of others, but the fear of public speaking that so many develop over time, is minimal, as it becomes a familiar routine for Bennett children.
Independent Problem Solving:
When faced with a problem, children are encouraged to take the risk of trying to solve it independently before seeking adult help. This helps build their problem-solving skills and self-reliance. It is easy for us as adults to swoop in quickly to help a child figure out a problem. No one likes to watch children struggle. But it is in the act of struggling that resilience is fostered.
When a child can’t figure out where a puzzle piece goes, or keeps building a tower that falls over because it’s not stabilized, teachers may provide prompting language such as, “I notice that piece has a flat edge so maybe it’s part of the outside border of the puzzle?” or, “I wonder how you could make that building stronger?”
Scaffolded encouragement allows the child to continue to solve problems on their own. The payoff of the reward of success is always worth the risk.
How Parents Can Promote Healthy Risk-Taking at Home
Let your child make their own mistakes.
It’s important to delineate between protecting your child from harm and allowing them to “mess up” and learn from the consequences of their actions. If your child is facing a relatively moderate risk and a result of their own choices, you should provide support but allow them room to experiment. For example, if your child wants to bring a toy to the playground, remind them that bringing it comes with a risk. It could get broken, lost, or another child may want to play with it. After you lay out this risk, let them choose to bring the toy or not.
If any of the aforementioned consequences occur, they’ll be ready to learn from their mistake the next time you head to the playground. This doesn’t mean there won’t be tears or a meltdown when you leave without the lost toy, but the next time, you’ll be able to say, “Remember when we brought Spiderman to the park last week? You were so upset when he went missing. What should we do instead this time?”
Share Your Mistakes:
Model resilience by sharing stories of your own failures and how you learned from them. This is a great dinner table conversation. “Who made a new mistake today? What did you learn from it?” Children love hearing real-world stories of their parents out in the wild, making mistakes. Highlight the emotions you felt throughout, from embarrassed, to sad, to brave.
Recently we discussed our mistakes of the day at the dinner table. My husband shared that he was giving a lesson to students in his high school Government class about Congress and was incorrect on how many there have been in our government’s history. “I wrote this was the 116th Congress on the board and a student pointed out that it was the 118th. I had to stop the lesson and fix my mistake. I felt embarrassed and a little flustered in front of my students.”
Our children then asked why he would feel embarrassed and it prompted a great conversation about how we feel we should appear to others versus owning who we are, and allowing others to see our real selves. I encourage this humbling dinner table exercise for any family. We also love to jam out to the family-friendly tune “Try Everything” by Shakira, who highlights making new mistakes every day, not giving up, and always trying again.
Create a safe space for your child to explore, experiment, and try new things. Our schedules are so busy, it can be extra hard to find time to play and explore alongside our children. Challenge yourself to 10 minutes a day to fully engage and explore. Put your phone in the other room and allow yourself to be overcome with wonder and curiosity as you follow your child’s lead. Ask them open-ended questions that will stimulate their curiosity as you work and play, as this encourages critical thinking and decision-making.
Allow your child to make age-appropriate choices and decisions. It empowers them to take ownership of their actions. From letting them choose their clothes in the morning (yes, fashion risks are important, too!) to having them weigh in on the dinner menu for the week, this communicates to your child that their opinions and decisions are valuable and they are competent enough to make them. This will build their self-confidence and self-image.
Fostering healthy risk-taking in early childhood is a powerful gift we can give our children. It equips them with the skills and mindset to embrace challenges, learn from failure, and ultimately, thrive in an ever-changing world.
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