Helping Children Build Risk Competence

SANYO DIGITAL CAMERAAt Compass ELC our first priority for the children in our care is their health and safety.  We know that families have entrusted to us their most precious children.  But does being safe mean children should avoid taking risks?  Children’s natural play involves taking risks.  They are explorers, trying to figure out how things work and how they fit in the world.  If we are constantly saving them or encouraging them to avoid risk, we jeopardize their ability to learn, to problem solve, to make judgments about their skills and abilities and in the end, to develop a stronger sense of self.  When we create an environment that is too safe and sterile we are in jeopardy of children not learning how to make competent decisions around risk.  Children grow older and become teenagers, and at a time when risk is everywhere don’t we want them to be capable risk takers?  Building risk competence begins in the early years.

There are two key elements to consider when thinking about building risk competence in early childhood.  The first is opportunity and the second is the presence of adults.  We know that in order for children to become competent risk takers they need opportunities for challenging, adventurous play.  When they engage in this play they are able to assess their own skills and abilities.  How sturdy is this branch?  How much weight can it bear?  As vitally important as the experiences themselves is the adult’s role in supporting adventurous play.  This is demonstrated in this story from our St. Teresa’s School Age Program.


The yard at St. Teresa’s is connected to a beautiful wooded area with large trees with amazing branches just right for climbing.  While exciting for the children, this adventurous play was a bit scary for some families.  Stephanie Weare, program educator at St. Teresa’s, wanted to support this curiosity and experience for the children but also wanted to make sure that the families felt safe.  During meeting time with the children, Stephanie posed the following question, “What do we need to consider to stay safe while climbing?”  The children’s ideas were used to develop a climbing protocol that was documented and shared with families.

Here are a few of their ideas…
• “Don’t go near tiny branches.” – Max
• “Branches need to be bigger than your arm.” – Keiran
• “Don’t step on branches that are broken, if you hear a cracking sound get off.” – Erin
• “No picking leaves off the trees.” – Ari
• “Climb trees with proper footwear.” – Blake
• “No flip flops.” – Hayden
• “If you can’t get up the tree, you probably can’t get down from the tree and then you shouldn’t be up in the first           place.” – Erin
• “The metal soccer nets should not be under the tree when climbing.” – Addyson

The children’s ideas are strong reflections of their competence in thinking through risky situations. Considering branch size, footwear, and potential dangers demonstrates their critical thinking skills and thoughtful nature. The role of the educator is crucial here not only in bringing forward these thoughts, but also in being present to help children recall their ideas while engaged in their climbing experiences.

Families in the program often now join the children in their climbing experiences. Through dialogue and documentation they can see the competence of the children and the value of this kind of play experience.

Benefits of Taking Risks & Climbing Trees:DSC04682 (1)
• Fosters curiosity
• Promotes creative thinking and problem solving skills
• Encourages social interaction with peers
• Stimulates coordination, strength and spatial awareness
• Builds confidence and self-esteem, and most importantly,
• Promotes natural exploration

Submitted by: Lorrie Baird

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