When Taking Risks is a Good Thing For Kids

Ordinarily, most adults would say that risk-taking is something for more experienced people to do, and would say that toddlers, preschoolers, kindergarteners, and even young elementary age children should probably not engage in. However, risk-taking is a life skill everyone needs to learn, and where better to learn to manage small risks than in a safe and supervised environment such as a child care center or nursery school?

Now, no one is advocating that four-year-old jump from the roof into a swimming pool. Simple risks, like climbing low tree branches or negotiating a balance beam over a puddle, these are the kinds of risks young children should be taking. In an over-padded, baby-proofed world, how can adults provide the children in their lives with the opportunity to take risks and, just as importantly, why should they?

Confidence: This is important! Taking a risk that pays off is a great way to validate oneself. Kids can be proud of their own accomplishments and self-validate without looking to an adult for that. Making a leap off the top of a play structure, riding a bike without training wheels, wading into chest-deep water, these are all important ways to nurture self-efficacy.

The Social Component: Children run in packs like wolves, always coming up with elaborate plans and pretend adventures. In this way, risk-taking is beneficial because when children confer with others, they are building language skills as they benefit from the experience of their peers while contributing their own feedback to the proposed risks. Maybe it’s building a ramp with boards to ride a ride-on toy down, or perhaps they have to “walk the plank” on a pretend pirate ship or swing from a rope like Tarzan.

Independent Thought: Complementary to the social skills mentioned above, risk-taking is also another great way to develop independent thinking and problem-solving. Each time a child engages in risk they must process the what-ifs, the possibilities that may play out, and think of what they may have to do if things don’t go accordingly. It’s worth noting also, that although the social aspect is beneficial, independent though allows children to discern when their peers are making unsafe choices. If a child has never been allowed to take risks, how will they be able to identify it when they see it in others?

Physical strength and proprioception: Engaging the body in risky activities helps children develop, through multiple trials and errors, the physical development they will need later in life for organized sports, martial arts, or dance. Gross motor development occurs naturally with all engaging movement, so taking risks is not the only way to achieve it, but proprioception, or spatial awareness of one’s body, is another important consideration. Children need to learn how to not fall, but they also need to learn how to fall safely. This is achieved through experience, also known as risk taking.

All these points aside, this discussion is about reasonable risks. It’s about advocating for children to be allowed to take risks in an adult-supervised environment free of life-threatening hazards and anything that is age inappropriate. We may not need to hold their hands on a balance beam, or rescue them when they are momentarily become “stuck” in a tree, (give it a minute, they can probably work it out on their own!) but we absolutely should be “spotting” them from a safe distance. Let them climb only as high as they can do independently, and don’t help them go any higher than that. Find rocks to climb next to sand pits, not next to concrete or asphalt. Wear helmets and pads, and be especially vigilant around water. In other words, let them believe they are being adventurous, but always be there just in case.

This article is part of a child health and wellness series posted for the benefit of parents by Prime Time Early Learning Centers.  Prime Time is a family owned child care company that provides Infant Care, After Care, PreK, and Summer Camp programs for children from six weeks to 10 years of age in Paramus, Edgewater, Hoboken and East Rutherford New Jersey, and in Middletown (Wallkill) and Farmingdale (Babylon) New York.  See what parents have to say about their experience with Prime Time Early Learning Centers on Google and Yelp!

Prime Time serves families in zip codes: 10940, 12589, 07652,07653, 07630, 07649, 07450, 07451, 07020, 07024, 07010, 07047, 07030, 07086, 07307, 07302, 07310, 07306, 07071, 07073, 07094, 07072, 07074, 07094, 07070, 07071, 11735, 11737, 11704, 11703, 11747 .