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Valuing risk and challenge

Whilst keeping children safe is a constant priority, there is a delicate balance to be met with this and encouraging them to experience risks and challenges. Here we discuss how to encourage risk and challenge in children's thinking, as well as some practical ideas

Managing physical risk

If we try to remove all possible risk from children's lives there is a danger that we will we be inhibiting rather than extending their learning. Some dangers clearly have to be avoided and we would be failing in our duty of care to young children if we did not protect them from these hazards. Poisonous chemicals, faulty electrical equipment and food unfit for human consumption come into this category. In other situations it is important to assess the real risk presented by, for example, a lighted candle, a supervised visit to the local park, using a hammer, or a saw or climbing the stairs. Children are entitled to such experiences to broaden their understanding of how to manage in the real world in which they live.

Our ultimate aim should be to help children master the skills they need to manage risk and danger for themselves. Children given the opportunity to experience this type of ‘risky freedom' will grow in competence and self confidence as they master a wide range of physical and social skills.

Good risk assessment will take into account the expectations of the adults, the age of the children, the nature of the activity, the physical environment and the degree of supervision required. Activities which present children with risk and challenge can then go ahead on the clear understanding that small accidents or mishaps that occur are part of the learning experience for everyone.

Risk and challenge in children's thinking

Creating an environment to support risk and challenge relates not just to the physical environment, but to the emotional one as well. Early years practitioners have the challenging task of creating emotional and physical environments in which very young children can flourish, displaying their emerging interests and abilities. Practitioners do this best when they:

  • create rich and exciting learning environments, full of open-ended resources with which children can explore their own particular interests and fascinations
  • provide a supportive framework in which children have the time, space and resources to follow their own ideas
  • observe closely the children they work with, noticing and acknowledging their ideas and paying attention to the things which interest them
  • listen attentively to the ideas and feelings which children communicate, verbally and non-verbally, and respond appropriately, supporting and extending children's developing knowledge, skills and understanding
  • challenge children to reflect on and explain their ideas, encouraging higher level thinking skills.

To support early years practitioners, the Early Years National Strategy team have produced a very interesting document entitled ‘Finding and exploring young children's fascinations - strengthening the quality of gifted and talented provision in the early years' which ‘draws on current research evidence and practitioner case studies to explore how each child's unique strengths, interests, aptitudes and passions can be recognised, celebrated and nurtured in the EYFS.' It presents the argument that very young children often possess sophisticated thinking skills and creativity which may not be recognised or valued by practitioners and family members, and is intended to support practitioners in taking responsibility for creating enabling environments in which ‘all children can discover and gain confidence in their own capacity for learning.'

Despite the fact that the writers of the document appear undecided as to whether they are discussing the needs of ‘gifted and talented' children or ‘all' children, alternating between the two in successive paragraphs, there is much useful and practical advice here for early years practitioners in all sectors.

Practical ideas

  • As a staff group, discuss individual feelings about what constitutes ‘risk' and what sorts of ‘risky experiences' children are entitled to. This is an essential first step to defining a ‘risk and challenge' policy for the setting.
  • Provide support and guidance to enable colleagues to see the benefit of being more flexible in their approach to organisation and routines, to help them to feel comfortable with the uncertainty of not knowing what is going to happen next.
  • Investigate the Health and Safety Executive website to find out for yourself what their approach is to risk management, rather than taking someone else's word for it. You may be surprised!
  • Read the report, Common Sense, Common Safety produced by Lord Young at the end of 2010. This makes some important recommendations about how to take a balanced view of what constitutes risk within education establishments.
  • Explore the thinking behind the Forest Schools approach to understand more about the impact it can have on young children's social as well as physical development.
  • Spend time explaining to children what makes some activities potentially dangerous, and demonstrate how to behave safely. This will be far more beneficial to their long term learning than simply banning or avoiding particular situations.
  • Share your approach to valuing risk and challenge with parents. Listen to their views and help them to see the value of young children becoming independent and self sufficient.

Links with the EYPS Standards: S5, S7, S8, S9, S10, S11, S12, S17, S20, S33
Links with Ofsted SEF: Sections: 4b, 4c, 4d, 4e, 4f, 5j