Reflections on Quality – Risk-taking in the Early Years

Reflections on Quality – Risk-taking in the Early Years

Reflections on Quality is an invitation to reflect by Anna Nguyen-Sgro, Quality Specialist, Children’s Services, Halton Region

One of the most significant indicators of quality is that the early learning and child care environment ensures each child is safe and that their well-being is protected. This element of quality is given focus in the Child Care and Early Years Act (CCEYA), various environmental rating scales and assessment tools, and is typically a priority for parents, educators and other adults. While it is critical that early years classrooms, outdoor spaces and activities are safe, How Does Learning Happen? Ontario’s Pedagogy of the Early Years suggests it is also important for early years programs “to provide children with interesting opportunities for a reasonable degree of risk taking” (page 29). This does not mean putting children in danger of serious harm, but rather, providing  opportunities for experiences that are interesting, challenging, engaging, unpredictable and uncertain, to support their learning, growth and development.

The balance between safety and risky play is often a challenge when planning the environment and providing experiences for children. Concerns about the potential for injuries are often the reason for adults wanting to gain control of children’s play and are a barrier to providing opportunities for children to engage in risk-taking experiences. It is assumed that by removing risks, children’s safety will be ensured. However, this approach fails to acknowledge risk-taking as a positive feature of children’s play and learning (Tovey, 2011). In “The Environment is a Teacher” in Think, Feel, Act, Karyn Callaghan challenges us to consider that “If our environments are designed to eliminate all risk by not allowing access to breakable items or physical challenges, how can children learn to exercise self-control and become aware of their own actions?”

How Does Learning Happen? suggests that programs can foster children’s health and well-being by “facilitating children’s efforts to take reasonable risks, test their limits, and gain increasing competence and a sense of mastery through active play and social interactions” (page 33). Research consistently suggests that opportunities to engage in risk-taking in play is associated with many positive outcomes including gains in physical and gross motor development, social and emotional competence, self-confidence, creativity and resilience.

Invitation to Reflect:

In collaboration with your colleagues, discuss the following questions to explore your own practice and attitudes towards risk:

  1. What does “safety” mean to you? What does “risk” mean to you? What does “danger” mean to you
  2. How can the environment be arranged to encourage children to engage in activities that involve an element of manageable risk (appropriate for children’s varied capabilities)?
  3. How might you assess the benefits of risky play when considering experiences for children?
  4. How might you empower children to consider their own safety and well-being in play?
  5. How might you advocate for each child’s right to engage in unstructured play?

For further reading:

Canada Public Health Association. (2016). Risky play is essential for child development.

Gill, T. (2007) ‘No Fear: growing up in a risk adverse society’

Tovey, H (2001). Achieving the Balance: Risk, Challenge and Safety.

Participaction (2015). Position Statement on Active Outdoor Play.




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