Risk is a hot topic in education, and the source of a great deal of professional confusion and anxiety. Tim Gill charts a way through the stormy waters towards a more thoughtful, balanced approach

Amma is climbing a weeping willow tree in her nursery garden. The trunk of the tree curves gracefully, almost parallel to the ground, a couple of feet above the bare earth – the perfect height for the four-year-old to test her nerves. She doesn’t realize it, but some adult eyes are keeping a watch on her. One of the nursery staff has spotted her going under the canopy, and is monitoring her progress from a discreet distance.

Amma presses on. She is a keen and competent climber, and is now higher than ever before. Although she is about four or five feet off the ground, she shows no signs of stopping. Imagine you are that worker watching Amma. What would you do? How and when would you step in? And more importantly, on what basis would you make these decisions?

Now imagine that, instead of climbing a tree, Amma was working on a jigsaw puzzle. The contrast between these two scenarios is revealing. With the puzzle, educators find it easy to accept that the child’s play should be respected. Even if she is struggling, or using a method that doesn’t make sense to adults, her own efforts are valued and we think before intervening, because we recognize the value of nurturing Amma’s sense of agency and autonomy.

With climbing, we are tempted right from the outset to give warnings – ‘Take care, Amma!’ – that express doubts about a child’s competence. All too often, any interest we might have in what she might be getting out of the experience – and she might be getting a great deal – is crowded out by our anxieties about what might happen to us if things go wrong.

The importance of exploration, adventure and uncertainty

Of course, it is absolutely right to be concerned about children’s safety. But this concern has to be tempered by a recognition that exploration, adventure and uncertainty are at the heart of the process by which children get to grips with the objects, people and places around them. As theorists from Dewey through Piaget and Vygotsky to Bruner have shown, learning comes first and foremost from within: it is the child’s impulse to go from ‘this is what I can do already’ to ‘this is what I cannot do but want to do’ that underpins so much of their development. The emphasis in the Early Years Foundation Stage on play has placed the issue of risk center-stage, because for children, play is all about exploring ideas of competence, power and control.

While there are some major disagreements about the state of childhood in the UK, the one thing everyone accepts is that children have fewer opportunities to encounter risks. Daily experiences like spending time with friends and family in the street, and playing in local parks and green spaces, are in long-term decline. As Helen Tovey argues in her 2007 book Playing Outdoors, this loss of childhood experience has to be the starting point for a thoughtful appreciation of the role of outdoor play in children’s learning and growth.

Balancing risk against benefits

So what does a thoughtful approach to risk look like? The essential first step is to recognize that risk cannot be eliminated. The zero-risk childhood is a myth, and so is the zero-risk setting. Children can and do have accidents, fight, get hurt or upset, feel sad or frustrated, in any situation or setting. Indeed, as my co-authors and I argue in the government-funded publication Managing Risk in Play Provision: Implementation Guide, in many cases these outcomes are best understood not as adverse at all, but as key ingredients in a rich diet of learning experiences. Hence we adults are in the business not of minimizing or eliminating risk, but of managing it. A sound approach to risk is one that balances risks against benefits.

Remember Amma climbing the weeping willow? Let us start by asking: ‘What is she gaining from her experience?’ It is not hard to come up with some impressive answers to this question:

  • physical activity
  • body awareness
  • self-confidence
  • sense of achievement
  • real-time risk management and emotional awareness – not forgetting the intrinsic thrill of being off the ground.

Next we can ask: ‘What are the risks?’ The most obvious, of course, is the risk of injury. As to how great that risk is, practitioners who know the children they work with should have a pretty good idea of their strengths and weaknesses, their personalities and how they might respond to challenges in different situations.

There’s an important point here: the risks that should be our prime focus are surely those that concern the child. Yet as I noted above, it is the risks to adults – blame, loss of reputation, liability – that too often crowd our minds, and cloud our judgements. We can become preoccupied by back-covering, and devote far more time to managing this – through policies, guidelines and paper trails – than we do to looking after children. Weighing up risks and benefits is not always easy – it certainly cannot be reduced to a set of checklists or guidelines – but it is absolutely at the heart of good pedagogy.

What does risk look like in an early years context?

When we think about risk in early years contexts, our mind typically turns first to physical challenges like Amma and her tree-climbing, or children’s use of play equipment or tools. When Helen Tovey talks of ‘risky play’ in Playing Outdoors, this is what she has in mind. But of course there are many dimensions to risk. For instance, there is:

Social risk: the challenges children face in learning how to get along and resolve their differences.

Emotional risk: experiencing, and learning to overcome, a whole range of fears and anxieties.

I agree with play work academics Wendy Russell and Stuart Lester: risk – in the sense of actively seeking out uncertainty – is a deep theme in a great deal of children’s self-directed play. In all these domains of risk, the goal for educators should be the same: to help children learn how to cope with the everyday challenges that life might throw at them. This is what, in my book No Fear, I call ‘adopting a philosophy of resilience’.

A philosophy of resilience

If a philosophy of resilience is to be successfully developed, it needs support at all levels of the ‘chain of command’. A shared understanding of risks and benefits should run from face-to-face staff through managers to inspectors, regulators and ultimately politicians, and also parents and the wider public.

At first blush this may seem a tall order, especially given the historic focus in many organizations on safety, almost to the elimination of risk. However, first impressions can mislead. For a start, and contrary to widespread belief, the basic law is not a problem, grounded as it is in common-sense notions of reasonableness. What is more, there is no evidence that we in the UK are in the grip of a US-style epidemic of litigation.

There is a problem with the way the law is regulated by bodies such as the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and Ofsted. The HSE in particular has in the past tried to shoehorn learning settings into adopting risk management approaches that were originally designed for factories. While the basic goal of reasonableness is the same in both contexts, there are fundamental differences in the way risks need to be thought about. For instance, in a factory setting, a wobbly bridge is simply a hazard that needs to be fixed. But in a nursery, a wobbly bridge may offer great value, because it allows children to experience the emotions of mild fear and excitement, and in doing so to explore and manage risk.

Given this problem with regulation, the coalition government’s announcement of a comprehensive health and safety review gives cause for optimism. In the political debates, it was noticeable that evidence and anecdotes about the over-zealous application of safety rules in schools and nurseries were at the forefront of politicians’ minds.

Are parents the problem?

When talking to professionals about risk, I am often told that it is parents who are the biggest barrier to a more balanced approach. This needs unpicking. While it is true that there are some anxious parents out there, it is also true that many parents are fed up with the way that their children’s sense of adventure and appetite for experience is being stifled. For every parent who wants to buy knee pads for their crawling baby, there is a couple like Oliver and Gillian Schonrock: the South London parents who came to the attention of the media for fighting for the right to allow their two young children aged five-and-a-half and eight to cycle to school on their own.

The truth is that parents, like the rest of us, are on a continuum when it comes to attitudes to risk. The mistake so many settings make is to think they have to set their benchmark at the level of the most anxious parent. Too often, a single complaint about a piece of equipment leads to the removal of that offer. In the nicest possible way, providers need to help some of their parents understand why giving children a taste of adventure is so important. One way to do this is to revisit one’s mission statement. It is striking to note how many mission statements talk of creating ‘a safe and secure environment for children’. Given that opening gambit, is it any wonder that some parents feel confused if their child comes home with a sprained ankle or a bruised ego?

Moving beyond the blame culture

The climate around risk in childhood is improving, as educators become more aware of the importance of fostering children’s appetite for adventure and discovery, and as public and political opinion swings away from an over-zealous approach to child safety. Meanwhile on the front line, initiatives such as Forest School and outdoor kindergartens have spread dramatically over the last few years, as has a more creative approach to thinking about outdoor space.

The time is right to build on this shift and move beyond the blame culture. We need to reject the zero-risk mindset, and recognize and promote the value of mistakes and setbacks in children’s learning. We need to support sound professional judgement that is less about checklists and back-covering, and more about what will help the children we work with to develop their confidence and resilience. Perhaps most important of all, we need to reflect on our own childhoods, and remind ourselves of what it might have felt like for Amma, when she climbed the tree in her nursery higher than ever before.

See more about Tim Gill’s work