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by Nicole Fravel

The other day my teenage son suggested that he ride his bike from our house to the local elementary school. The school is only about two and a half miles from our house, but the route follows a winding country road with no shoulder and on which most motorists drive way too fast. I said he couldn’t make that ride because he wasn’t experienced enough to do it. He replied that if he was never allowed to try, then he would never know how to do it. We agreed that he could practice riding a bike on the road with a parent following closely behind. When both he and the parent felt like he could navigate safely, he would be ready to do it on his own.

Risk is Necessary for Learning

A certain amount of risk is necessary for learning. Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal development emphasizes the idea that learning takes place at the point of something new. The Zone of Proximal Development, or the “sweet spot” where learning happens, is just a step beyond the child’s reach, but close enough that it can be attained through guidance and practice. In early childhood, children need environments that encourage them to take risks in order to develop cognitively, socially and emotionally.

Maria Brussoni, Associate Professor of Pediatrics at the University of British Columbia, defines risky play as play that is open-ended, where there is uncertainty about the outcome, where the child engages with the physical environment and where there is a possibility for injury. She describes it as play that produces a “scary-funny feeling” like butterflies in the stomach. I liken it to what an adult might feel on a roller coaster or in a haunted house. The unexpected is definitely going to happen, and that is what makes it exciting.

When we hike in the woods at Wildwood Nature School, our path is different each time. We make take a different turn on the trail, risking getting lost but practicing our navigation skills and exercising our memories. Or the trail itself may be different because of a newly fallen log, forcing children to use problem solving skills, but perhaps risking balance or a climb to heights in the process.

Differentiating Risks from Hazards

It is important to note that a “risk” is quite different from a “hazard.” A hazard is something that causes

harm. Children and teachers do not have control over the environment or their response to it, and therefore cannot assess the situation or create a proper approach to it. A “risk,” on the other hand, is something that yields growth and where the potential for injury can be mitigated. A child turning cartwheels on a set of bleachers is a risk, but a child turning cartwheels on the grass or a wide surface with cushions underneath is a risk. In the hikes mentioned earlier, children and teachers work together to mitigate risk by testing the strength of logs before putting full weight on them or the depth of water before wading in it.

Benefits of Risk Taking

Properly managed risk boosts children’s self-confidence. Exposure to risk shows children that they can take on new and unfamiliar tasks, both now and in the future. They learn problem solving and critical thinking skills as they decide how – and whether – to approach new situations. Since success is not guaranteed, children also build resilience. They learn that it is okay to take risks and fail. In fact, setbacks lead to an inquiry mindset. Some of the best discoveries come from trial and error, from testing a “what if” and then reformulating an approach based on the results.

Building a proper foundation in risk-taking in early childhood will aid children throughout their academic studies, work careers and life challenges. Children who are exposed to risky play become adults who are resilient, creative critical thinkers able to adapt to new work situations and bounce back from career and life setbacks.

Spending time outside and in the natural world gives children numerous opportunities to take risks. In next month’s post, I’ll talk about how teachers can set up environments that encourage risky play whether they have access to unfettered wildlife or a smaller, more traditional outdoor area.

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