Let them climb!-Risk taking in early childhood

Among the other teachers that I work with I occupy a strange role.  I am the teacher who doesn’t worry.  If a child climbs to the top of the slide and stands up smiling, I wave back.  If a group of kids find a pile of sticks I sit down encouraging exploration.  When another teacher comes over and quickly takes one out of someone’s hands I feel a pang of sadness.  Balancing on the edge of the sandbox? No worries.  Running while holding someones hand? No prob.

I am a firm believer in modeling and I don’t see it as effective to critique another teachers style right in front of the children.  However, in this case I don’t see my modeling going anywhere.  In many cases I think that other teachers may see me as being unaware of what the children are doing or even lazy for not rushing to their side.  I don’t blame them.  It is in the job description to protect all of these chubby flush-faced little people.  If they fall or scrape themselves we need to comfort them and clean them up, a job that isn’t always quick and easy.

I guess the reason teachers don’t seem to pick up on what I am doing is because it doesn’t look like I am doing anything.  No one notices as I take a few steps closer as I wave to the boy on the slide.  No one catches it as I gently ‘save’ a special stick for a little girl before she goes running off, but after she has had time to really check it out.  They also can’t see the quick evaluation I go through as I see those kids run off together.  What are they running on, near or around that could hurt them? Or is it really just fine that they run off laughing holding hands until they collapse, even if one of them may get a little scrape in the process?

I have noticed less and less swings on the playgrounds at schools, new schools (especially preschools) are rarely built with them due to safety concerns.  Inside there are clean floors, bleached tables and toys in neat boxes.  Glass is hidden far away along with scissors and anything else deemed dangerous. I know these other teachers think they are being helpful by stepping in to save them.  Save them from themselves and possible danger, but are we really helping them?

Starting from birth we all try, fail, and try again.  It is an innate trait in all of us that helps us stay motivated to learn to crawl, walk or hold a crayon.  As these children explore their world I see it as my job to guide them but not stop them.  To allow them to climb and fall.  Learn about their bodies but also learn about perservance.  To allow that innate desire to discover the world around them by their own power.  An article by Jackie Sinnerton states “It’s vital for emotional development that they are allowed to trip up, pick themselves up and learn from the experience. They need to build up resilience.”

The world our children will enter upon adulthood is not one of safe clear boundaries and constant protection.  To the contrary they will find a world of gray areas, amorphous relationships, virtual professions and vague job descriptions.  It is not as simple as letting them take whatever risk they want.  There is a delicate dance performed between me and the kids.  They know I am there to help them stay safe, but they also know they are free to try things and I will understand. They need to be allowed to takes risks, fall down and have someone there when they need help getting back up.  The amazing thing is a lot of the time if they know you are there that is enough for them to pick themselves up.

32 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. eliminationcommunication
    Nov 03, 2011 @ 13:07:53

    I so agree with you. I rarely see see-saws, merry go rounds, and monkey bars anymore. The “toddler” playgrounds are so low to the ground that my toddler shunned them. We encourage her climbing safely. I often heard people exclaiming about the 1 year old sliding on the slide by herself and now the 2yo deftly handling ladders while a few 4, 5 and 6 year olds are standing at the bottom apprehensive.

    And it all started with encouraging her to get down safe from the bed and couches at crawler and letter her climbing the stairs at pulling-up age with us there to save a mishap rather than forbidding the activity. We put our crawler on all kinds of subtrates too…grass, stones, asphalt, concrete, mulch, sand…

    She’s taken a few diggers in the dirt or got surprised by a rapid slide that sent her flying off the bottom — dusts herself off and tries again at our encouragement. Unless she is truly hurt in a fall beyond a minor scrap or mild bump she doesn’t cry. A lot of the time we don’t realize that she did get hurt until we see a bruise or stray scrape later!


  2. Hawley
    Nov 13, 2011 @ 23:24:54

    I totally hear ya, Missy! I’m similar: attentive, aware, ready to step in if need be (like when Eden dives off the couch and I grab her leg before she can topple – sometimes, anyway!), but not acting out of a place of fear. I think you describe well that the other teachers probably don’t realize your approach or understand that you aren’t ignoring the child. But I think a huge thing to point out is that they’re acting primarily and solely out of fear.

    That’s what seems to me to be the case for a lot of parenting in the US. Mama friends of mine and I have all had people come up to us (well-intended, they think) and tell us how we ought to be more careful about this, that or the other… Like when Eden was walking away from me but standing by a door with a half-window and someone came and grabbed her and brought her back to me, saying “I just don’t want her to fall down and get hurt, or have someone open the door on her.” I wanted to say in response “Do you think I want her to fall down? Or I’m not paying attention?” I was close enough to get to her if she needed me, and any fall would be less than about 6″ since she was on the ground and isn’t very tall. I could also see if anyone was approaching the door… But I said nothing. Maybe just “Oh, thanks.”

    I think that our society blows up fears and makes everything potentially catastrophic… so we spoon feed that fear into our kids, when we won’t let them try anything until they’re well beyond an age where it might cause a boo-boo or something.

    Anyways, reminds me of the Babies Documentary. I LOVE that movie! It made me feel so much more self-assured as a parent, and I hadn’t even had Eden yet (I was about 7 months pregnant though). I love that all the parents clearly love their children, but have such different ways of caring for them and raising them. I try to remember that all of them (so far as I know, anyway!) turn out just fine, but with different views of life. I want Eden to enjoy the dirt, take a few risks, and know that I trust her to make good decisions – and when she doesn’t, that I’ll still be there.

    It must be so hard to work with other teachers who have different approaches! Babysitting allows me a bit more control – but of course, I have to follow the rules of the parents 😉 But at least there aren’t multiple different expectations and competing schools of thought to deal with… Does your daycare ever discuss methods or approaches amongst the staff to increase unity?


    • melissacady
      Nov 14, 2011 @ 04:59:54

      Yes I agree it is based in fear. Society has set us up to feel that children are unable to handle their bodies or make age appropriate choices. While, obviously, a toddler needs much guidance in what is or is not safe they also have an amazing sense of what they can handle and rarely get themselves into positions they can’t get out of. That movie is great! It really puts our American parenting into perspective. Sometimes we act as if our way is the only way when in fact it is so far from that.

      In addition to being fear based I see some component that is a feeling of superiority over the child. Adults in America don’t respect the different way in which a child lives in and explores the world. We assume that they should be taught to act as mini adults and often miss the amazing learning that is taking place in relatively simple (to us anyway) situations. The need for adults to be in control of a child’s actions goes beyond the physical and often spills over into the social. Adults very often will tell babies or toddlers ‘You need to share that!’ How often are the kids allowed to work it out on their own? Assuming that their is no risk of true physical harm babies and toddlers have a lot to learn from figuring out how to handle social situations on their own. However the idea is very foreign to adults. The more that a child is helped or “guided” when they don’t need it the more they get the message that they are unable.
      As far as my school I would say that it is a less than stellar Early Childhood Community. Essentially it is glorified babysitting. Where I was Assistant Director before there was much more emphasis on staff discussion, continuing education, developmental observation and team work. To be honest the staff, with the exception of one or two, don’t seem the least bit interested in child development or brain science. I model what I can and do the best work that I am able to with the resources available. The reason I stay is that it gives me the best benefit in the world, having Collin by my side everyday.


  3. abundantlifechildren
    Dec 01, 2011 @ 03:41:38

    If you had any good books or resources on this topic, I would LOVE them. I am working on a workshop right now about the necessity of risk taking. Oh…you and I would work SO well together!!!!! 🙂


  4. Rebekah @ The Golden Gleam
    Jan 02, 2012 @ 19:45:37

    So true that we need to allow our kids to take risks! Thank you for linking up to the Best of 2011 Blog Party! Happy New Year!


  5. Trackback: 2011 Best ideas for kids (Linky party!) « The Emerging Mamma
  6. The Imperfect Housewife
    Jan 03, 2012 @ 02:14:30

    I agree. I am always telling my husband to ‘let some things go’… kids need to be kids!


  7. The Monko
    Jan 03, 2012 @ 20:55:33

    I can only hope when my son goes to school he has a teacher like you. I couldn’t agree more that children need the freedom to take risks, but its not just teachers who won’t let them. I seem to be alone among my mummy friends in thinking its OK to let my 2 year old play with cocktail umbrellas. One of my mummy friends nearly had a heart attack when she found out “But they have a sharp point on the end”
    “yes, and?”


  8. Elizabeth Rutten-Ng
    Jan 25, 2012 @ 14:51:29

    I just would like to say, ‘I’m so glad that the children have a teacher like you!.’ Continue to be the teacher who observes, who let the children explores!. Well-done!


  9. Amanda
    Jan 25, 2012 @ 18:28:51

    That’s exactly the way I parent my son. He’s 20 months old and is quite the climber. A parent yesterday at the park said that she was surprised that my son had the guts to go to the top of the equipment by himself. I told her that I don’t stop him because that’s the way he learns best. I do stay close by and will intervene if there is true danger near by, but that hardly every happens! I love how physically active and inquisitive. I also love how he is not a fearful child. I would like to think that he’s like this because I don’t parent out of fear.


  10. Aunt Annie's Childcare
    Jan 25, 2012 @ 22:13:58

    Brilliant post, and I hope every childcare worker and early childhood teacher who reads it copies it and displays it for parents and other staff to see.


  11. Play at Home Mom
    Jan 25, 2012 @ 22:45:34

    LOVE THIS!! This was sooo me (AK) as a teacher and now me as a mother. I taught at a Reggio school where we had swings and my classroom was full of glass containers. I trusted my students to know their own abilities, I trusted them to respect the things in our classroom…..just as I do with my son now.


    • melissacady
      Jan 26, 2012 @ 04:15:38

      And I love Play at Home Mom! Thanks for stopping in! It goes beyond trust though doesn’t it? Not only do you trust, but you know them. You know if you have a child who loves to dump or throw or who can be reckless when tired or overstimulated and I am sure you would act appropriately. Being connected makes such a difference.


  12. Krissie
    Jan 25, 2012 @ 22:53:53

    I wholeheartedly agree with your beliefs…. But not as a teacher. I think it’s the parents role to decide if they wish to parent their child that way- not that of a teacher at school


    • melissacady
      Jan 26, 2012 @ 04:12:35

      The children in my care spend, on average, sixty hours in my care (or that of another teacher) How can we expect them to trust themselves if they are not gently taught to have faith in their body and what it can do? Hopefully I was clear in the fact that I am right there, watching, learning about them and their strengths. My approach is carefully considered and I would never put a child in danger.


  13. Tracey Lloyd
    Jan 25, 2012 @ 23:34:10

    Thank you for this. We had a lot of the same issues with raising our kids. We lived in a flat up stairs, so they needed to do stairs, and surprise, surprise, they got good at it really early. They got to use really sharp knives age 2 – small knives and used to cut mushrooms, so they could be effective. Result – they’ve been effective help in the kitchen since they were 5. Climbing frames – climb with them if it’s big enough for you and just be encouraging if not, and they get good at it. Help them make sensible decisions yes – don’t let them dig tunnels in the side of sand-dunes or jump up and down at the edge of a crumbling cliff, but help them learn about risk by experience. I hate the idea that kids get crap scissors, pretend tools, poor quality stuff, so it takes them years longer to learn to use them properly, and they learn really bad habits because you can do things with plastic tools that will kill you if you use real ones!

    Taking this into teaching, I was working with a partially-sighted child aged 9, teaching him to cut apples with a sharp knife (by the way, showing him methods which work well for people with no sight at all). I moved to work with another child, and turned back to find that his dedicated assistant had taken the knife from him and replaced it with an ineffective plastic one, “because he could hurt himself”!
    There is light at the end of the tunnel – the Forest School movement in the UK is carrying the torch for risk taking, and it’s gaining ground. They noticed that many Scandanavian kids become wonderfully independent and able by being allowed to take risks outside and learned from it.

    I wish you luck in helping your colleagues see the light.


    • melissacady
      Jan 26, 2012 @ 04:09:02

      Yes, yes, Tracey! I have had many parents come to me wondering why their three-year-old can’t cut with scissors yet. When they show me the plastic safety scissors, I have them try. Then they know why their child can’t use them! It is all about gentle guidance based on what they show you they are ready for. “Help them make sensible decisions and learn about risk by experience”!! YES!


  14. Babz
    Jan 25, 2012 @ 23:42:47

    my five year old grand daughter is allowed to play in the back yard without direct supervision since she pointed out,”i am five!” one day i didn’t see her out the windows or doors , went to the den stepped out on the porch and said to the yard. “Vivi! where are you?”from up higher than i was used to comes her little voice, drifting down,,,”now don’t panic but i have learned how to climb trees.”i had to laugh , without her warning i may well have panicked lol .


    • melissacady
      Jan 26, 2012 @ 04:04:51

      Babz- That is probably one of the sweetest things I have heard in a long time. I loved climbing trees as a little girl and am so grateful for the freedom I was given. She will thank you someday


  15. Marlene Thomson
    Jan 25, 2012 @ 23:51:24


  16. Scrambled
    Jan 26, 2012 @ 02:43:32

    I see your point, I do, however, reading this post has brought to mind many of the things that have been happening at our school and in our family in just the last 7 days. Our son, who has PDD-NOS (autism) and a 1:1 aide, was recently told by another child to stick his tongue on a metal pole, and he did, and it stuck. It is the middle of January after all. Well, he tore a few big chunks off. They seem to think he won’t do THAT again, but my child didn’t get it. He cannot generalize the lesson so that he also knows not to lick the chains on the swing, or a door frame, etc. So yeah, I’ve been a bear. A BIG MOMMA bear! Where was his aide, why doesn’t the school do a better job? Sigh.

    At home, I love to let my child explore and climb. We have lots of purposeful downtime to play… and lots of times other parents would never understand our home and why I allow my children to play with some of the things they do. My boys have even been known to find a gardner snake and mess with it for hours! We have lots of therapy (OT) where our child is swinging from trapeeze bars and crashing & bumping, climbing nets and rock walls, etc. In a sense, most other parents in the area would also love to have the same opportunities for their children to ‘let go’ but the only place available to their child is the McDonalds play land. : (

    Unfortunatley, my child also tried to use a stick as a light saber and scratched a new neighbor boy’s face right across the forehead. Head wounds are awful. So are scared parents when they know your child has special needs. It was an accident, he isn’t malicous, but still… my child is ‘differen’t and you just never ‘know’…. Parents just FREAK out.

    So, while I fight the school (again) for a more watchful eye and protection for my child, I understand why the poles should be wrapped in foam or hockey stick tape. I get why children shouldn’t have sticks. I know a child who stopped breathing because he fell so hard off the see-saw that his ribs stacked together so tight he couldn’t catch a breath.

    Scary stuff being a parent, and yet, I GET IT. We do need to let them be kids. I grew up on a dairy farm myself and our favorite hiding spot was inside the bailer (that makes hay). We always climbed to the highest point of everything and then jumped. It’s just what kids do.


    • melissacady
      Jan 26, 2012 @ 04:02:36

      I sympathize with the difficult dilemma you face. As a mother you want some reassurance that your child will be protected (at least at a basic level) when he is away from home. Yet you know that he must make his own way in the world no matter what that means.
      You pointed out that when you are with him you allow him more freedom than what you may wish he were allowed at school. Do you think this is because you know your child better? In a perfect world everyone would know your son as well as you do and allow him freedom when needed and boundaries when necessary. Obviously this is not always the case.
      In my particular situation I work with many toddlers of varying ages and there are most certainly children who I would immediately take a stick away from. I hope to treat each child as an individual and give them the freedom to work within their own developmental limits, allowing them to push themselves and supporting them when they do.
      There is a definite line between risky behaviors (that may cause a bump or scrape) and dangerous actions that would lead any outsider to call me an irresponsible caregiver. My hope is that children are allowed the chance to show themselves to a caring teacher and the teacher is afforded the respect to make different choices for different children.
      (There is much more to say about lack of supervision, impossibly high ratio environments and ‘safety measures’ put into place as replacements for proper care and teaching but that is for another day…)


  17. Susan Syddall
    Jan 26, 2012 @ 07:59:03

    As an early childhood teacher and a parent of two young boys, I love your article.

    It is so refreshing to read such a well balanced approach to child care and safety. Life is full of potentially dangerous/hurtful situations. Even using paper can be a health hazard! Paper cuts really hurt!

    However, wrapping our children in bubble wrap to keep them safe isn’t helping at all. In fact, we prevent our children from learning how to handle potentially dangerous things … such as glass jars and sharp knives.

    I love your approach of allowing children to learn while providing supervision that fosters confidence in children … not fear!

    Thanks heaps for sharing. This is a great article!


    • melissacady
      Jan 27, 2012 @ 04:04:21

      Exactly Susan! Our job is not to protect them but to help foster a healthy sense of self and resilience that allows them to get up, try again and know themselves a little bit better when they come out the other side.


  18. mochichick
    Jan 26, 2012 @ 08:24:30

    It seems lately I’m seeing more and more articles about the importance of risk-taking when it comes to our little ones. Love it!


  19. Nev
    Jan 26, 2012 @ 20:32:28

    THis is exactly what I do: stay away but observe, judge the situation and only ‘interfere’ when it’s necessary eg she’s stuck or they can’t solve it themselves.

    Great article, have shared.



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