Katrina Foley describes how young children’s independence and self-management skills can be promoted in an environment which celebrates risk, challenge and empowerment

A philosophy of empowering children
Southway Early Childhood Centre is an 80-place multicultural children’s centre situated in an ethnically diverse area close to Bedford town centre. Children attending Southway come from a variety of ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds. The centre is in the top 10% of deprived areas nationally.

At Southway, children are provided with a framework of key experiences which develops their language, autonomy, confidence and self-esteem. Confidence and high self-esteem are developed through children becoming increasingly autonomous within the setting. The gaining of ‘mastery’ over their environment is key to children’s positive view of themselves (Webb 1974). Key experiences are also used as a framework for extending children’s interests, decision making and thinking skills. Learning is developmental and the key experiences are always provided, giving children the opportunity to develop them as they so wish.

Sessions involve free choice indoors and outdoors, with a short tidy-up time and then a story session for the last 15 minutes to which children can choose to go or not. We believe that children should be able to make their own choices about what they do to help them learn how to make their own decisions to prepare them for future life. Decision making is very important and carries responsibilities. Each area has its own rules which children are expected to follow. For example: the child who cooks washes up, the child who goes outside in winter wears a coat.

Children need to feel in control of what they do and learn, within the framework chosen by the adults. Practitioners have a responsibility to be active in creating the conditions that make children feel that almost anything is possible and achievable. As adults we have a key role in empowering children through developing their autonomy and making them feel that most things they suggest can happen in some way. The empowerment of children, where adults are the facilitators and children are respected and trusted leaders, is central to our philosophy.

It is also really important to provide children with high-quality resources and give them the time and space to use them. Uninterrupted time builds concentration and perseverance – a very important prerequisite for learning.

Education for life
Early years education is ‘education for life’ and life itself is a series of risks and challenges! Therefore it is very important to prepare children for these as part of their nursery experience. Allowing children to take risks within a safe and secure environment is vital. The practitioner has to be very proactive in this, letting children know that taking risks is not only OK but often a good thing to do, and helping the children to establish safe practices around any perceived risk.

Challenge is an integral part of life and development, and often the way in which children move on to the next stage of learning. At Southway children are encouraged to set their own challenges – the challenge is always set by a child for him/herself, it is not set by adults. The adult’s role is to enable the children to achieve their own challenges. Risk is anything that an individual child does not normally choose to do. As with adults, risks and challenges will vary for each individual. What is a risk or challenge for one may be a very ordinary experience for another. Risks can vary from making a simple guess to using sharp knives or cooking over a flame. The adult’s role is to recognise when a child is taking what is a risk for them, and to support and encourage them in their self-chosen tasks.

The converse of this, limiting children, may discourage their creative ideas and even put them off participating in an experience. Limiting children can also have a deleterious effect on their growing autonomy. For example: practitioners saying ‘do not build above your shoulder’ immediately limits what children are capable of doing with a set of blocks.

Encouraging risk and challenge through key experiences
It often seems that those areas of experience which are real and provide most risk and challenge are the ones that the children choose, concentrate on and enjoy the most. Often children with special educational needs are particularly interested in these experiences. The setting is designed to mirror the real world – many of the experiences provided are from ‘real life’ and include block play, woodwork, cooking, sewing, gardening and climbing.

Children engaging in real experiences gain a sense of the values and validity of these which empowers them and develops their sense of autonomy and personal responsibility.’ (Whalley, 2006)

Block play
Block play is an area which can provide a huge variety of challenges, risks and learning opportunities and it is the practitioner’s role to ensure that challenge is maximised for the children. They can do this by spending time talking to the children, ensuring that they understand both the possibilities and any potential dangers. Practitioners can also help children to understand how to make these experiences as safe as possible, including talking to other children about how to keep safe.

Large blocks are heavy and encourage children both to take risks and to build with a friend. Buildings involving a group of children may be higher and more complex. The talk and discussion will help language to develop and enables children to experience working together in a group of their own making. This is an important precursor to the adult chosen group which children will experience in their later schooling. Encouraging children to keep the block area as safe as possible and making others aware of how to keep themselves safe is very important for everyone’s learning.

When a block structure becomes high, children can be encouraged to stand on a chair or a table to complete a building. Stepladders are also used to help children to complete structures. At Southway we explain to children that this can only happen when an adult is there to support them. In all of this the adult is key to achieving high level complex play. The children need a vigilant, supportive and empowering adult to recognise their needs and interests and to help them achieve their aims. Throughout the process it is very important for the adults to help children develop strategies for managing risk.

Woodwork encourages problem solving. Woodwork is very good for developing children’s concentration, their sense of responsibility and their abilities to work individually, but alongside other children. It enables them to use a variety of real and challenging tools and to learn how to select these appropriately. Our woodwork bench has hammers, saws, drills, screwdrivers and pliers for children’s use. The provision of tools is limited to one or two of most items in order to make this experience manageable.

Children at Southway use the woodwork tools in an extremely responsible way. Initially they are taught how to use and replace them safely when they have finished. Children who are new to the experience are well supervised by adults. Those with more experience may work more independently and help to teach others. Observing how the children use this area, how well they concentrate and how much they enjoy this experience is extremely rewarding for practitioners. 
Children doing woodwork are:

  • developing their thinking through problem solving, ‘How do I join these two pieces together?’
  • learning about length, size, angles and shape.
  • developing mathematical language and ideas of thick and thin as well as those of comparison – thicker, thinner, longer, shorter.

Most importantly they are gaining immense personal satisfaction, leading to increased confidence and self-esteem, from mastering their learning environment by carrying out a real task in which they are trusted and respected. For more experienced children helping and teaching others provides a different sort of challenge, which they are very willing to meet.

At Southway the cooking corner is in daily use. Here the children make a variety of sweet and savoury recipes often using a sequence book independently, listening and talking with an adult, chopping, cutting, pouring, rolling, stirring and observing how ingredients combine together and change.  Measuring, estimating and counting are just a few of the mathematical skills that children will acquire naturally through cooking. The use of sharp knives, under the supervision of an adult, is a very important life skill for all. Encouraging children to learn this early on will help them at home as well as in the setting.

Learning to estimate or guess can be difficult for children who often want to ‘get it right’ first time. Practitioners can help them to understand that it’s perfectly OK to make mistakes and that they can have as many turns as they need before getting it right. So, a child rolling out the right size of marzipan for the top of his or her Christmas cake, trying it on the cake and then rolling again can be a very enjoyable activity and a good introduction to estimation and guessing. Similarly, chopping vegetables for soup encourages the children to try, persevere and concentrate while developing hand control.

In both of these activities the adult plays a key role not only in helping the children to achieve the task but in showing them through talk and discussion that you don’t have to be right first time and that it’s OK to make mistakes. Similarly, if a child drops a tray of rolls or biscuits accidentally we just clear up and start again – the child obviously needed the opportunity and practice of carrying the tray. He/she could in fact be viewed as the child who most needed to do that task.

Using sharp needles and scissors without close supervision involves risks. To minimise these we teach children strategies: always place the needle in the pincushion if they wish to speak to an adult, go to the toilet, or have finished their work. Although not formally taught, over time the children’s stitching becomes extremely neat and children at Southway have made items such as bags and babygros.

The outdoor area is an extension of the indoor classroom and a very important area for risk and challenge. Allowing children to run, jump and climb and use crates to build a platform to access the monkey bars is all part of outdoor play. Children use carts to ride down our mound or small hill, often with more than one child in the cart. Usually when children decide to do this themselves they are quite safe and accidents rarely happen.

Nettles and thorns are part of our environment and the children need to learn how to manage these. Therefore they are present in our garden to enable children to learn how to cope with them. The climbing of trees is encouraged at Southway as this provides a very different experience from using a climbing frame. The key for the adult is to let children decide their own challenges. The adult then observes closely to assess any potential risks, initiates discussions with the children to help them understand both the possibilities and the potential dangers, discusses possible solutions, and then allows the children to try out the experience which they have assessed together.

Risk assessment
All through life children will meet dangerous tools, glass, china, and other hazards. Our philosophy is that the sooner the children learn to deal with these the safer they will be. Providing real china mugs in the home corner and proper tools in other areas makes experiences real for the children and helps them to develop a sense of responsibility and self-discipline. None of these tasks are dangerous in themselves, provided that they are well supervised and safety rules are followed. In all of the areas of experience described above, the adult is a sensitive observer and enabler who can discuss and plan with the child, drawing their attention to any potential dangers and helping them to find solutions for dealing with them. Edgington (2005) states that: ‘… risk assessments should give teachers and practitioners confidence that they have taken the steps to minimise risk.’

Rich, empowering, interesting experiences involve risks as well as challenges. The adult’s role is to ensure that any risks are minimised so that the children can engage in the experience safely and gain from it. The practitioner must take a risk themselves and decide on whether the educational benefits of any experience outweigh the risk. Bruce (2004) tells us that: ‘…safety awareness should open up and not close down learning opportunities.’

Involving children in assessing risk is part of their learning. For example:

  • ‘What do you think could happen if you go down the mound in a cart and X is at the bottom?’ ‘What do we need to do/say?’ ‘Look’, ‘wait,’ ‘tell him/her’, could all be solutions to this problem.
  • ‘Do you think that it is safe to build here?’
  • ‘How can we make it safe/safer?’

Sometimes we may need to be prescriptive and explain our reasons. For example, when using knives or scissors:

  • ‘This is how you hold the knife.’
  • ‘Always look carefully at what you cut.’
  • ‘Hold it like this.’
  • ‘Carry the scissors like this.’

Learning basic strategies for dealing with their environment in order to manage it more safely not only empowers children but enables them to progress to more complex learning situations.

Working with parents
At Southway parents are encouraged to work with their children. They learn how to help them manage the woodwork and cooking as well as other experiences. Most of our parents view their children’s increasing independence very positively and are fully aware of how much their children love coming to the centre. By working with us they come to understand how carefully the staff manage risk. Parents are always encouraged to talk to us if they are worried about any aspect of our provision. All staff are trained to talk with parents and address any individual concerns. Parents’ meetings are also held to enable us to listen to their views.

In conclusion
When managing risk and challenge it is the adult who must always decide on the importance of the experience, the educational benefits to the children and the ways in which they use risk for the benefit of everyone. All children are natural risk takers and challenge seekers. The question we need to address is:

‘Are we going to empower them by helping them to manage risk and meet challenges positively, or are we going to introduce them to a society that is cautious, sanitised and discouraging of risk taking?’

Bruce, T (2004) Cultivating Creativity  Hodder and Stoughton London.
Eddgington, M (2005) The Foundation Stage Teacher in Action Paul Chapman Publishing, London.
Webb, L (1974) Purpose and Practice in Nursery Education Blackwell.
Whalley, L (2006) personal communication, Headteacher Cherry Trees Nursery School, Bedford.

Katrina Foley is a nursery and primary teacher who trained in Scotland and currently works as head of centre at Southway Early Childhood Centre, Bedford.