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Children Determine Their Own Risk Level

Children Determine Their Own Risk Level

Nicole Fravel

In the past few nature blog posts, I’ve been talking about the benefits of risky play and how to create environments that encourage children to take risks. I have also mentioned the need to separate “risk” from “hazard,” and to guide the children toward appropriate risk taking.

Encouraging risks does not mean that a program is a free-for-all where teachers stand back while children do everything and anything their curious minds urge them to do. In this post, I talk about ways to manage the risk taking that children do.

Children Determine Their Own Risk Level

The most important rule for programs that embrace risk taking is to give the children control over the type and level of risk they are taking. The children decide when they are ready to climb higher in a tree or run down a steep hill without any pressure from adults.

If I see a child watching other children during a risky activity, I may offer a suggestion, such as, “If you want to run down the hill, I can hold your hand.” But I will not attempt to convince a child to undertake a task that they themselves do not feel ready to do.

At Wildwood Nature School, the adults also do not lift children into trees or other high places. The children know that arriving at those “risky” places on their own means that they are ready to be there.

Adults can offer assistance, such as, standing behind children, holding hands, offering suggestions as to how to make a task more manageable, but must recognize the difference between acting as a “spotter” for safety and actually providing that balance, strength or agility for the child.

“One risk, one teacher”

Once children have decided to take a risk, a teacher needs to be in close enough proximity to monitor the choices children they are making. Anne Stires, founder and director of the Juniper Hill School, a preschool through grade 4 forest school in Maine, goes by the “one risk, one teacher” philosophy. We follow this procedure at Wildwood Nature School as well.

The children know that if they would like to climb up a tree, they need to notify a teacher who can stand close by to supervise. If they are hammering nails into a tree stump, a teacher needs to stand close by to supervise.

Sometimes additional risky play needs to wait until the climbing or hammering is done and a teacher can move to supervise something new.

Teach the Children to Problem Solve

Another important piece of the puzzle is to engage the children in problem solving. The more problem solving children do around risk management, the more they will know how to keep themselves safe.

Tom Hobson, creator of the popular blog “Teacher Tom,” recommends what he calls “the 17 second rule.” If a child is engaged in a somewhat risky behavior, a supervising adult should wait 17 seconds before stepping in so that the child has time to change course or figure out a solution on their own.

I have to admit that my limit runs closer to a “5 second rule.” While I do like to give time for children to develop their own solutions, I’m still working to tame my own fear of risk!

Teacher Tom also advocates replacing the words “be careful” with more concrete statements of fact that help children learn to assess a situation and react accordingly.

For example, phrases such as, “the ground under the tree is hard” or “the water is deep,” and therefore you might get hurt, help children recognize different aspects of their environment and make decisions about what needs to be done.

When adults do step in, immediate redirection is not always necessary. Instead, adults can explain the situation to children and ask, “How can we make this safer?”

For example, one teacher noticed that a group of children wanted to make a “second floor” to a fort. She knew that standing on the fort’s roof would make it collapse. However, instead of telling the children a flat out “no,” she explained the safety concerns and asked them for ideas about how to make it sturdy enough for a second floor.

Her approach not only allows the children to recognize safety as a priority, but also encourages them to problem solve and learn a bit about engineering and design.

Perform Regular Systematic Safety Checks of the Environment

The last step in minimizing risk is to realize that hazards do exist and work to eliminate them. Regular assessments of the playground or outdoor environment and the activities the children perform there are essential to limit the possibility of serious injuries.

Assessments should be performed on a regular basis in recognition of the fact that environments change over time. For example, toys and equipment can splinter or rust over time, and natural environments can grow new poisonous plants or wasps’ nests.

Teachers should do a risk/benefit assessment of the activities children in which children engage. A risk/benefit assessment lays out the developmental benefits of an activity, lists the possible risks and identifies specific actions taken by staff to eliminate or control the risks. The assessment can help teachers determine whether the benefit outweighs the risk and how to keep children as safe as possible.

When children are involved in completing the risk/benefit forms, they learn to think about why they are performing certain activities, what they want to accomplish from the activities and how to keep themselves safe.

Whether in a traditional early childhood setting or a nature-based environment, risk can never be completely eliminated, nor should it be. But by letting children help determine their own level of risk tolerance, teaching children to be mindful of safety when choosing activities and performing regular risk/benefit assessments, programs can make risk taking a safer endeavor.

An added bonus is that saying, “yes” to more activities makes saying “no” when something is truly dangerous much more powerful.


See Early Learning HQ’s website for a good example of a risk/benefit assessment.

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