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Taking a Risk? The value of risk and challenge in the early years

Since the initial publication of this article in 2010, the EYFS has been updated and revised and we have a new Development Matters. The conversation around risk taking in the early years remains relevant, perhaps even more so, today. 


Childhood should be a time of safety and security. But it is also a time of curiosity, exploration and adventure. Most adults can remember their stomach flipping over when they swung a bit too high on the swings at the park, or the thrill of climbing a tree. They might also recall the sense of achievement afterwards. There are a growing number of researchers and childhood specialists who believe that as a society we are denying the current generation of children the delights and benefits of taking a risk and rising to a challenge. Those in the early years propose managing possible risks rather than removing them altogether so that young children can still be given the opportunity to take small risks that are unique to them in a safe and supervised environment. However, in the face of increasing public intolerance of any perceived 'danger', it can be a difficult approach to implement.

Changing Attitudes to Risk

The way in which we feel we should keep our children safe has changed dramatically in just one generation. In his book No Fear: Growing up in a Risk Averse Society, Tim Gill refers to research which shows that "in 1971 eight out of ten children aged seven or eight years went to school on their own. By 1990 this figure had dropped to less than one in ten" (p.12). Gill links this to a rise in road traffic and car use, longer working hours, poorer public space provision and an increase in the use of leisure technology, all of which have helped fuel our fears about risk . In a summary of research on risk and play, Josie Gleave observes that we have changed from a society in which "people acknowledged risks as a natural part of life, and accidents were seen as random spells of bad luck" to one where "risk of any kind is unacceptable, and accidents [are] no longer seen as misfortunes but as predictable and unavoidable events" (paraphrasing Ball, p.15). Another trigger for our risk aversion has been the ever-increasing coverage of worrying or tragic events by the media (Lindon in Gleave). This brings our concerns to the forefront of our collective minds and feeds our general anxieties. Arguably, the result has been a growing protectiveness towards children by their parents and a tendency towards greater regulation of all risk by successive governments.

What sort of risks are we talking about?

In early years provision there are different kinds of risk. The sort that can be avoided by watchful maintenance, such as removing a broken plastic chair, or closing the garden gate, are not relevant to this discussion. These are risks that regular adult checking can and should eliminate. This article refers to the risks that naturally arise from the activities young children seek out or invent - a kind of risky play. Cutting with scissors, hammering a tack into wood , digging a big hole, moving things to make a den, hanging off the highest monkey bar, playing with a new friend, building a bridge with a plank of wood or a high tower with cardboard boxes all include an element of physical or emotional risk. They are also things that young children need to have the opportunity to do. The EYFS uses the phrase 'trial and error' to refer to this sort of risky play, that is not necessarily outright dangerous, but involves an element of the unknown: "They can try things out, solve problems and be creative and can take risks and use trial and error to find things out" (Learning and Development, 4.1).

Risk taking and child development

Children naturally embrace risk taking from an early age. Learning to stand up or take their first steps may lead to a tumble, but a child will instinctively get up and try again. Play England states that "all children both need and want to take risks in order to explore limits, venture into new experiences and develop their capacities, from a very young age and from their earliest play experiences" (p.2). Taking small risks has a positive impact on a child's physical, social and emotional development. They learn coordination and how to move safely, how to negotiate and problem solve and make choices. They become more resourceful and creative in their thinking and gain confidence. Edgington believes that learning these skills in early childhood is vital for children as they grow up: "Children who learn in their early years to make their own reasoned decisions rather than simply doing what they are told to by others will be in a stronger position to resist the pressures they will inevitably face as they reach their teenage years." (in Supporting Young Children to Engage with Risk and Challenge). In taking a bit of a risk, young children are exposed to the possibility that things might not go according to plan. Being able to make a mistake, understand the consequences and adapt and move on are hugely valuable life skills. This is highlighted in the National Strategies Early Years Visions and Values for Outdoor Play which states that "children are seriously disadvantaged if they do not learn how to approach and manage physical and emotional risk" and in the EYFS which warns that "being overprotected can prevent children from learning about possible dangers and how to protect themselves from harm" (A Unique Child, 1.3). Participating in risky play enables children to develop key life skills in a supportive environment. The truth is that risk is present in everyday life all the time and children should be able to grow up equipped to cope with the challenges of real life, whether ordinary, uplifting or terrible. Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, warns that a consequence of denying risk to children is that "we may end up teaching our children in the same breath that life is too risky but also not real" (p.132).

Finding a balance

The approach to risk taking in the early years needs to be balanced and proportionate. Practitioners can be vigilant and responsible at the same time as being flexible about the opportunities for risk taking in their settings. The National Strategies document Keeping Safe in Depth advises that "judgements should be made based on an understanding of the balance between risks and benefits" (p.2). Its criteria for assessing whether a risk is acceptable is to look at how likely it is that someone will come to harm, how severe that harm might be, and what the benefits of the activity for the children would be. If the benefits outweigh the likelihood or severity of the harm, then practitioners can work with the children to find the best way to carry out the risky play. Bilton writes that in her research "practitioners recognised that their role requires a balance of protection that also enables challenge" (p.73). This balance extends to knowing the children as individuals and understanding that their experience of risk and challenge will be unique to them. A timid child may find participating in group play socially challenging and emotionally risky where as listening, turn taking or playing alone could provide an emotional risk and challenge for a sociable and self-confident child. Bilton believes that children will seek out risk in order to challenge themselves, and an environment that is not open to this will lack stimulation and lead to boredom and other sorts of risk: "Without challenges and risks, children will find play areas uninteresting or use them in inappropriate ways, which become dangerous" (p. 73).

How to Manage Risk?

All early years settings are different. The kind of risky play available in a childminder's house or on a visit to the local park is different from that in a shared community space such as a church hall or in a purpose built nursery. Perceptions of acceptable risk may also vary from one community to another (Play England). Practitioners need to make sure that their understanding of risk taking and any related policies reflect the circumstances of their setting. At the same time, they should explain the value of challenging play to parents and involve them in developing policies on risk management. This will help parents to feel informed and positive about risky play and allay misunderstandings or anxieties about equipment or activities that are available to their children. Edgington writes that the early years practitioner "has to help all adults to put this risk taking into perspective and deal with it constructively" (The Foundation Stage Teacher in Action, p.95). They also need to involve children in risk management. Practitioners should model safe and sensible behaviour and choices and support children in problem solving. The language used by staff can foster a positive and responsible attitude to risk in children. The National Strategies advice is that practitioners should "reassure rather than alarm" children over risk taking (Keeping Safe in Depth, p.7). Louv admires a parent who chose the phrase 'pay attention' instead of the more common 'be careful' when her child was involved in potentially risky play (p.180). Using empowering language gives the child the opportunity to work out the risks they are in for themselves without creating anxiety. The EYFS advocates being open with children about taking risks and taking care. Practitioners should "help children to understand how to behave outdoors and inside by talking about personal safety, risks and the safety of others" (Enabling Environments, 3.3).

Another aspect of managing risk is the development of good policies, making sound judgements and providing staff training. Organisation is the key to successful risk management. Adults can have small and specific areas that they are responsible for so that the task does not become overwhelming. There should be regular checks of resources as well as reviews about how children are using them and whether a particular group of children need greater supervision as they play in a certain way. This may change when a new cohort of children arrives, or as their play evolves. Risk assessments should be carried out, but they should not prevent risk taking altogether. Jan White believes that they are "a highly useful tool for providing the safe framework that enables appropriately rich, challenging and stretching experiences for all children "(teachingexpertise.com). Policies on risk taking need to be relevant, accessible and constantly used and updated to keep up with children's play and creativity. As Bill Callaghan, Chair of the Health and Safety Executive, puts it, "keep your risk assessment fit for purpose, make it a living document and act on it".

As a society we have become so keen to protect children from risk that we have forgotten the need for challenge and daring in their lives. We are in danger of creating a new kind of risk - a generation of children who are unprepared for the richness and pitfalls of the life ahead of them - born out of boredom and lack of real experience. Early Years practitioners can be at the forefront of changing attitudes to risk taking for young children.


www.pre-school.org.uk, The Preschool Learning Alliance, Safe Early Years Environments

www.playengland.org.uk, (formerly the Play Safety Forum), Managing Risk in Play Provision: a position statement

No Fear: Growing Up in a Risk Averse Society, by Tim Gill, Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, 2008, UK

www.nationalstrategies.standards.dcsf.org.gov.uk, Early Years Visions and Values for Outdoor Play and Keeping Safe in Depth

Last Child in the Woods: saving our children from nature-deficit disorder, by Richard Louv, 2008, Algonquin Books,USA

www.playday.org.uk, Risk and Play: a literature review, Josie Gleave, 2008

Learning Outdoors: Improving the quality of young children's play outdoors, edited by Helen Bilton, 2008, Routledge, UK

www.teachingexpertise.com, Meeting the challenges of outdoor provision in the Early Years Foundation Stage, Jan White

www.teachingexpertise.com, Supporting Young Children to Engage with Risk and Challenge, Margaret Edgington

The Foundation Stage Teacher in Action, by Margaret Edgington, Paul Chapman Publishing, London, 2004

www.hse.gov.uk/risk/principles, Health and Safety Executive, Bill Callaghan, 2006

The Early Years Foundation Stage, DfES Publications

The paragraph on 'How to Manage Risk?' was greatly helped by the publications in www.teachingexpertise.com by Margaret Edgington and Jan White.

Juliet Mickelburgh
After doing her PGCE, more years ago than she’d care to mention, Juliet taught in Nursery, Reception and Year 1 classes in South London and East Sussex. She has also worked as a Learning Mentor. She was originally a freelance writer for the FSF and had a children’s picture book published. Juliet is now officially employed by the FSF and Tapestry, working in product support and as an Education Advisor. Along the way she has accumulated a husband, some children and way too many pets!

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