Margaret Edgington highlights the importance of providing children with appropriate levels of risk and challenge to enable them to develop skills for learning and for life

Can you remember the things you used to do as a child? If you are like most other adults you will probably remember:

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  • a considerable amount of freedom to play outside from a very early age – often roaming quite far away from home and adult supervision
  • playing with older and younger children – often whole streets of children played together and learned from each other
  • making a mess and getting messy – and, more importantly, this being tolerated by parents, as they expected play to be messy and provided ‘play clothes’!
  • being resourceful and using anything you could find as a play prop – including items borrowed from the home and many natural and found materials
  • sorting out your own conflicts rather than running to an adult for help
  • making judgements about risk – and in the process learning about physical limitations and moral boundaries.

When asked to recall the things they did in their youth which were potentially risky, adults list climbing trees, playing in rivers and streams, riding fast down hills on homemade sledges or go-karts, climbing on building sites and many other dangerous pursuits.

The children we work with today in our early years settings are unlikely to have the same kinds of memories. The increased volume of traffic and the media-fuelled fear of abduction have understandably made many parents afraid of allowing their children to play away from close adult supervision. Television, video and computer games also have a much bigger role in children’s lives than was the case for previous generations. Today’s young children are much less likely to play freely out of doors, to play with a wide age range, or to be exposed to, and learn about, risk.

What kinds of risk and challenge do children need?

In the current climate, many practitioners interpret risk and challenge narrowly in the context of physical activity. However, if we think holistically, we can see that young children need opportunities to engage with:

Physical risk and challenge

  • learning how to negotiate natural hazards such as ice, tree -roots, rocks or slippery leaves
  • developing skill in negotiating the physical environments of home and early years setting
  • learning how to use tools and equipment safely and purposefully
  • developing control and coordination of their bodies.

Social and moral risk and challenge

  • developing an understanding of the expectations and rules within different social settings
  • developing reasoning skills
  • learning to negotiate with others, including learning to say ‘no’ to others.

Intellectual risk and challenge

  • trying out new ideas and being willing to ‘have a go’
  • solving problems
  • being resourceful, inventive and creative.

Early years practitioners have a responsibility to ensure that they offer children all these opportunities.

Why do children need to experience risk and challenge?

Everyday life always involves a degree of risk and children need to learn how to cope with this. They need to understand that the world can be a dangerous place and that care needs to be taken when negotiating their way round it. Inevitably the most powerful learning comes from not understanding or misjudging the degree of risk. Similarly the toddler who ignores the warning, ‘Don’t touch, it’s hot’, and feels what ‘hot’ means, is not likely to make the same mistake again. Being told about possible dangers is not enough – children need to see or experience the consequences of not taking care.

If we observe young children, we can see that, from an early age, they are motivated to take risks – they want to learn to walk, climb, ride a tricycle – and are not put off by the inevitable spills and tumbles they experience as they are developing coordination and control. In early years settings children find their own, often quite ingenious, physical challenges and, in doing so, learn about their own strengths and limitations.

Children who are sheltered from risk and challenge when young will not be able to make judgments about their own capabilities and will not be well equipped to resist peer pressure in their later years. Jennie Lindon warns that: ‘Adults who analyse every situation in terms of what could go wrong, risk creating anxiety in some children and recklessness in others.’ (Lindon, 1999 p10)
Children who learn in their early years to make their own reasoned decisions rather than simply doing what they are told to by others will be in a stronger position to resist the pressures they will inevitably face as they reach their teenage years. In contrast, overprotected children may well make reckless decisions which put them in physical or moral danger.

Managing risk and challenge

There is a danger that many adults, who are afraid that children might hurt themselves, simply remove objects and equipment rather than teach children how to use them safely. These adults need to get risk into perspective.

As Jennie Lindon points out: ‘…no environment will ever be 100% safe. Even well-supervised children manage to hurt themselves, often in unpredictable ways.’ (Lindon, 1999, p9)

Additionally, if the environment becomes unstimulating children will inevitably become bored and behaviour will deteriorate. In Learning Outdoors, Helen Bilton highlights that: ‘Without challenges and risks, children will find play areas uninteresting or use them in inappropriate ways, which become dangerous.’ (Bilton, 2005, p73)

What do practitioners need to do?

Effective risk assessment and management requires practitioners to address the following issues:

  • Distinguish between acceptable and unacceptable risks and remove any hazards

When carrying out any risk assessment it is essential to balance the benefits of an activity (or of using a piece of equipment) with the likelihood of coming to harm and the severity of that harm. Staff teams need to discuss how they will help children to manage equipment or tools which could cause harm. When new equipment is considered or obtained, staff need to discuss how they might help children use it safely and plan staff time for this teaching to take place. It is essential to have in place policies which set out the setting’s position on risk assessment and health and safety.

  • Establish a systematic maintenance programme

Obviously in group settings the wear and tear on equipment is considerable and each team needs to have a planned programme of inspection and maintenance. This involves regular (at least weekly) checking of equipment and resources with any damaged items removed for disposal or repair. In many settings individual team members take responsibility each week for different areas of provision. Part of this responsibility involves checking and maintenance. Some settings remind staff of what is involved by displaying a checklist in each area of provision setting out tidying and restocking responsibilities. Recycled resources such as milk crates, guttering, boxes, etc, provide wonderful open-ended opportunities for intellectual and physical challenge but must be replaced once they are broken.

  • Observe the children and identify those who need greater challenge or specific support

A few children enter early years settings with little awareness of risk. They charge at equipment and can become a danger to themselves and others unless they are taught some boundaries and helped to make judgements about their own capabilities. Particularly in the outdoor area, these children need to be shadowed until they can manage themselves and equipment more safely. Other children, who may have been overprotected at home, may be fearful about trying new and challenging experiences or may be afraid to use physical equipment. These children need to be gently encouraged and supported to have a go with much genuine praise for their efforts. Children with special educational needs may need specific support to negotiate the environment and access experiences.

The Play Safety Forum (2002) argues that: ‘Children with disabilities have an equal if not greater need for opportunities to take risks, since they may be denied the freedom of choice enjoyed by their non-disabled peers.’

  • Establish and display expectations for behaviour

The most dangerous settings for young children are ones where there is no clear behaviour policy and where the staff are inconsistent in their management of the environment and the children.

In settings like Southway Early Childhood Centre in Bedford, where children develop and demonstrate high levels of independence and responsibility and are encouraged to set their own challenges, everyone is clear about what is expected of them. The environment is organised and labelled in such a way that children and adults know exactly where things are kept and can tidy away easily. The staff and children know the expectations for behaviour and remind each other of these consistently throughout the day. It can be helpful when these expectations are on display so that staff, children, parents and visitors are regularly reminded of them and can reinforce them consistently.

Above all, settings that enable children most effectively to engage with risk and challenge genuinely believe that young children are competent learners and can respond to high expectations. They do not say things like ‘Our children wouldn’t be able to do that’ or ‘We set this up and the children just trashed it’. They know that children need to be taught how to behave responsibly and independently and allow plenty for time for this teaching.

Ensure all adults understand their responsibilities and are supervising effectively both indoors and outside.

Adult responsibilities include:

– having the overview – keeping eyes and ears on the whole area and moving to areas where support is necessary. This role is vital if children are to be protected from avoidable risks

– observing and supporting child-initiated activity and play – sensitively getting involved to scaffold and/or extend learning or to help children play together

– leading planned experiences – working directly with a group of children.

  • Actively encourage children to assess risks and consequences

An important aspect of teaching children about risk is to encourage them to make their own risk assessments and think about the possible consequences of their actions.

For example, when building with wooden blocks, children need to be helped to see how their building can be made stronger and less likely to fall – this is more effective than telling children they can only build so many blocks high. When working with other children, they should to be helped to think about the feelings and ideas of others in the group and to consider the concept of fairness. For example, ‘Is it fair that you have so many when Jack has only one?’

Often children’s self-initiated challenges involve using resources or equipment in interesting or novel ways to represent something within their personal experience. Too often practitioners simply stop children from representing in these ways – particularly if a piece of equipment is being moved from one area to another. An alternative is to actively encourage resourcefulness. Scaffolding children to develop their ideas with due regard to the consequences, supports children to eventually think through the issues for themselves.

  • Communicate about risk and challenge with parents and other members of the community

Practitioners have a responsibility to share their knowledge with colleagues, governors, parents, students and visitors. Many adults who have never lived or worked with young children seriously underestimate young children’s capabilities and therefore see danger in virtually every resource or experience. Experienced, knowledgeable practitioners have a responsibility to show children’s competencies by sharing observations, making displays of photos and text and running workshops so that parents and other adults can use some of the equipment and resources the children use. During these workshops it is useful to remind participants of the risky things they used to do as children and the benefits to later development of dealing with risk from an early age, and then contrast this with the experience of children growing up today.

Practitioners can make available articles, leaflets and press cuttings which highlight children’s need for risk and challenge and be open and informative about the risk assessment procedures they have in place. It is also essential to let parents know from the start what will happen if their child should have an accident since ‘…exposure to the risk of injury, and experience of actual minor injuries is a universal part of childhood.’ (Play Safety Forum, 2002)

Only through regularly sharing knowledge, experience and strategies with others, will we reach a point of mutual understanding and trust. The Foundation Stage leader ‘…needs to foster the kind of ethos that will encourage all members of the community to accept that growing up involves taking risks and sometimes getting hurt. She has to help all adults to put this risk-taking into perspective and deal with it constructively.’ (Edgington, 2004)

  • Talk to parents/carers about their child’s learning

High achievers in all disciplines have taken risks and challenged themselves – and go on doing so. Practitioners need to help parents to understand the importance of creative thinking and resourcefulness to the learning process. They can best do this by sharing with parents and carers observations and photographic evidence of their children engaged in challenging learning. Through these shared discussions parents come to see the point of and value all aspects of their child’s development.


Learning to cope with risk and to accept challenges is a vital part of human development and learning. Those who have been denied this learning will not have the resources to cope with, and retain control of, their lives. Early years practitioners have a duty to offer children the chance to engage with risk and challenge within a well-managed context, which promotes a ‘have a go’ attitude, and to help others to understand how competent young children can be and how well they respond to being trusted with responsibility.

Self-initiated challenges

In a nursery school, one girl crawled on her hands and knees right across a high horizontal ladder, which was part of the climbing frame. Another girl watched and then tried to copy. She was unable to crawl on her hands and knees but found she could get across on hands and feet. After a few nervous moments she finally gained some momentum and made her way across the ladder. Just before she got to the other side she excitedly called to an adult ‘look at me’. Negotiating risks or achieving a self-imposed challenge boosts children’s self-confidence and self-esteem. A third girl who had watched the first two successfully negotiate the ladder took one look and walked away – she realised she was not yet physically able to cope with this particular challenge. She had enough experience of physical activity, and the consequences of overstretching herself, to know her own limitations and was wise enough not to put herself at risk.


  • Bilton, H (2005) Learning Outdoors, David Fulton
  • Edgington, M (2004) The Foundation Stage Teacher in Action: Teaching 3, 4, and 5 Year Olds, Paul Chapman
  • Lindon, J (1999) Too Safe for Their Own Good, National Children’s Bureau
  • Play Safety Forum (2002) Managing Risk in Play Provision, The Children’s Play Council