What does risk taking really look like in early childhood?
One of the biggest hurdles to outdoor play is understanding the nature of risk-taking. We run a nature immersion program called Birdwings, and have found that the most challenging risk-taking activities that children will experience in our programs has little to do with wild nature play at all. Snakes, fire-work, water-play and tree-climbing are not as challenging for children as putting on their own clothes, trying new foods, or saying farewell in the morning.
In moving beyond the security of our comfort zones where everything within is known and safe, the children have learned that each person’s zone of comfort is different, and that we take a risk when we step out of it. We learn about fear, safely, and together.
Children are often much more courageous and resourceful than we adults imagine they will be. In our distress at noticing children’s discomfort, we can do them a disservice by not trusting them to learn and grow in this moment. We might even find that in our attempts to provide comfort, we are teaching children that they cannot do it themselves.
It’s hard for adults to see the strength in children when it gratifies us to help them. It’s even harder when children are expressing frustration, sadness, fear or anger because they are out of their comfort zone and learning how to be present with that. We don’t want them to feel sad or fearful and we want to solve their problems.
Should adults solve children’s problems?
Offering bandaids for tiny scratches, carrying children’s belongings for them, carrying children when they can walk, packing their bags, opening lunch boxes, doing things that they can do themselves (or are capable of learning to do themselves) teaches children to rely upon others for the comfort, strength, courage and resourcefulness that we know is within them.
Do we make children learn tricky things before they are ready? No, of course not. We understand that risk-taking looks different for everyone, and is different again at various ages. But we will hold the vision for them that we believe they can learn, we will provide lots of opportunities for practice, and we will encourage a child to try even if it’s a bit frustrating. Learning how to try something new is often the biggest risk-taking lesson of all.
Can children help each other?
We encourage our other children at Birdwings to model courageousness for their new friends in these situations. When one of our friends is feeling uncertain, missing home, or a little scared of trying something new, the others know just what to say:
“Are you feeling worried? I miss my mum sometimes too. This is what I do to feel braver…”
“Do you want some help to pump up your courage? Here, I’ve got your hands”
“I never liked mango before but I kept trying it”
“Why don’t you watch us? Or try it this way instead?”
“We can sit together when you feel sad.”
“I’ll give you a clue. Watch out for this bit, it’s tricky”
In this way the children are acknowledging risk that they’ve already overcome and helping each other to greet challenges. They know it’s hard to try new things when you don’t feel confident in your skills yet. They know that these feelings are real – whether it is concern about leaving your mum, not liking the look of that spider, the feel of mud on your toes, not wanting to eat that fruit, or uncertainty of walking through tall grass. They all know the feeling of risk – and they know it passes because we are learning together in a safe space. They have felt it, and we encouraged them to step forward and try anyway, and they realised they could. We can be present, and we can be kind. We know we are all capable of great things.
How to take the next step?
I wonder, if we never ventured out into the world and just stayed in our comfort zones, might we have had the experiences and opportunities to build relationships, confidence, resilience, trust and sensible decision-making? I reflect on these children, and myself, and realise how wide our comfort zones have now grown, and how happy we are in them.
Children can do it, and so can the big-people. It takes vision, effort, courage, community support and a lot of empathy. Stepping outside is a challenge for both children (and many adults too), however by the very nature of outdoor play we are embracing the possibility of risk in children’s play. As we go forward together we learn more about our world and how to be in it – and children are learning for themselves about the magnificent things they are capable of doing!
Birdwings are an Official Nature Play Activity Provider, who offer nature connection training for educators and parents, and incursions and excursions for kindergartens and schools. Birdwings are also available for conferences and special events.