Damion, age three, goes to the dress-up area, puts on a cape, and climbs to the top of the climber. Balancing at the top, he yells to the teacher, "Watch me fly; I’m Superman!"
Juanita, age two, also climbs to the top of a climber, but once there, Juanita looks down and realized how high up she is, and cries out, "I stuck, I stuck!"
Andrew, age nine months, has been trying hard to pull himself up so he can "cruise" the infant room. Today he holds onto a small chair, pulls himself up, then falls as the chair topples over. He cries loudly with frustration.
Laura, age thirty months, has managed to climb all the way up on the seat of a tricycle and is standing there, wobbly and smiling, looking quite pleased with herself.
Kids will take risks; in fact, they are programmed to take risks. The learning process requires that a child stretch upward, to the next level. Children must challenge their bodies and minds in order to grow. Without risk, there is no challenge, and consequently, there is no growth. Both physical and intellectual risks are vital to the normal development of a child.
If a child could exist in a free, safe, and natural environment, she would spend her time exploring it in minute detail, learning everything there was to learn. She would study the smallest insect and try to climb the highest tree. In her house, she would push every button and open every door in order to know how everything worked.
Modern children have limited access to the natural world or even to their own homes. Children’s programs have become the substitute environment and if a child is in full-time day care, this is his primary environment. We must be extremely conscious of the place in which children do most of their exploring and be sure to build in safe and stimulated risks.
How do we integrate risk-taking into our daily curriculum? First we must understand the level of development of the children in each group. Observe them and discover what they like to do. Is there a problem with kids attempting unsafe activities in a certain area? This will give you a clue to the unmet needs of those children. Once you know their needs, figure out how to give them safe alternatives that will meet those needs. For example, one of the favorite ways for kids to take risks is by jumping, so provide a safe way for children to jump. Indoors, this can be jumping from a climber to thick gymnastics mat, from a low table to a big cushion, or just jumping on a mattress. If you have room for a climber and slide, even better.
Outdoors, look for ways to create safe risk taking on your climbing equipment. Eliminate limits such as "You can only go down the slide, not up." For many kids, going up the slide is a test of their coordination and balance. If there’s a traffic jam with kids going up and down, teach them how to negotiate to decide who goes next.
Along with the equipment, the teacher is crucial to risk taking. Be vigilant and focused on the children’s activities without interfering in them. When you are supervising risk taking, and a child asks for help, give the least amount of help you possibly can. Unless there is danger, always begins with a verbal cue and encouragement to "try it yourself." If the child is trying and still needs physical help, offer a finger, unstick a foot, point out the next step, but allow the child to finish the task.
In an unsafe situation, us I-Messages to set limits. A child who is standing on the seat of the tricycle, should be lifted down as you say, It scares me to see you standing on the trike. You could fall and get hurt. You can also add, Show me how you can ride safely. Safety always comes first.
Eleanor Reynolds is the editor of The Best of the Problem-Solver: Articles for Parents and Teachers and the author of Guiding Young Children: A Problem-Solving Approach. She can be reached by email at email@example.com.