Learning & Development: National Strategies series - part 11 - Challenging times

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

In this the eleventh National Strategies feature on the Early Years Foundation Stage, Kim Porter, senior adviser at Every Child a Talker, and early years regional advisers Jonathan Doherty and Kairen Smith, reflect on the nature and challenges of risk taking and being brave.

The EYFS requires settings to keep children safe from harm. As young children develop, they gradually learn about taking responsibility for their own safety. To do this, and to be successful learners, they need to be able to take risks within the safe environment of the setting. Successful learners are brave about trying things when they know they will be encouraged to learn from mistakes. The dilemma for many practitioners is knowing when to let children have freedom and when to protect them.

In this article, we will:

- reflect on what it means to be brave and take risks

- seek to promote a professional dialogue within your setting to consider the terms 'brave' and 'risk taking' in the context of the EYFS.

Starting from the principles behind the four EYFS themes, we will seek to provide a frame for discussion and dialogue.


Every child is, from birth, a competent learner who can be resilient, capable, confident and self-assured. Children actively seek out places and activities to test themselves, to develop their abilities and to help them learn how to deal with many of the everyday risks that they will meet throughout their lives.

Young children need to be able to set and meet their own challenges, become aware of their own limits, be prepared to make mistakes, and experience the pleasure of feeling capable and competent.

Sam Cartwright-Hatton's therapeutic work with anxious children (2007) shows that adults can make a difference by encouraging and praising confident thinking and risk taking in activities like rough and tumble play. The seven confident thoughts to be encouraged are:

- The world is a pretty safe place.
- I can cope with most things.
- Bad things don't usually happen to me.
- Bad things don't usually pop up out of the blue.
- I have some control over the things that happen to me.
- People are pretty nice really.
- Other people respect me.

Reflecting on practice

Do you, as an adult, think these thoughts? How do you promote that sense of exploration, investigation and risk-taking?


Young children learn to be strong and independent from a base of loving and secure relationships with parents and/or a key person.

By adopting a key person approach that emphasises the centrality of 'loving and secure relationships' to their practice (EYFS 2007), practitioners are supporting children to feel good about themselves and to be confident. When children feel like this, they are more likely to be able to engage in complex and creative play, to access freely a broad curriculum and take risks in their learning through guessing, experimenting and making mistakes.

The SEAD guidance for practitioners (2008) states that 'being acknowledged and affirmed by important people in their lives leads to children gaining ... inner strength through secure attachments. Opportunities created through these close attachments enable children to explore and be brave in their thinking and actions while supported by the key person.'

To encourage bravery in children, practitioners must be aware of the effect of their own anxieties. Child psychologist Jennie Lindon warns, 'Adults who analyse every situation in terms of what could go wrong, risk creating anxiety in some children and recklessness in others ... no environment will ever be 100 per cent safe. Even well-supervised children manage to hurt themselves, often in unpredictable ways.' (Lindon, 1999)

Sometimes, although practitioners themselves have positive attitudes to risk taking, the concerns of parents can lead to risk aversity. Practitioners have a responsibility to share their knowledge and experiences with fathers and mothers. Some adults underestimate young children's capabilities and see potential danger everywhere. It is important to remind parents of the risky things they used to do in their play as children and the benefits of assessing and dealing with risk from an early age.

Experienced, knowledgeable practitioners have a responsibility to show children's competencies by sharing their observations in appropriate ways so that parents reflect on their own attitudes to risk and opportunity.

Reflecting on practice

How do you as a practitioner encourage the opportunities for 'possibility thinking' and 'what-if scenarios'?


The environment plays a key role in supporting and extending children's development and learning. A rich and varied environment enables children to assess and deal with risks and challenges and demonstrate their thinking. In their play indoors and outdoors children need to feel safe while able to explore challenging experiences.

Good planning starts with observing children in order to understand and consider their current interests, development and learning (EYFS Card 3.1). Practitioners must take responsibility for ensuring the learning environment is planned to inspire, challenge and intrigue every child. (Confident, capable and creative: supporting boys' achievement, 2007)

'A taste of freedom' - last month's article from this series - highlights the importance of the outdoor environment in 'offering challenge, helping children learn how to be safe and to be aware of others. Everyday life involves a degree of risk and children need to learn how to cope with this ... negotiating risks or achieving a self-imposed challenge boosts self-confidence and self-esteem' (Nursery World, 21 July).

Learning Through Landscapes, in its document Early Years Vision and Values for Outdoor Play, notes that 'Safety of young children outdoors is paramount and a culture of "risk assessment to enable" that permeates every aspect of outdoor provision is vital for all settings. Young children also need to feel secure, nurtured and valued outdoors. This includes clear behavioural boundaries (using rules to enable freedom), nurturing places and times outside and respect for how individual children prefer to play and learn.'

Reflecting on practice

How do you encourage children to take risks in their exploration of your indoor and outdoor spaces?


Children develop and learn in different ways and at different rates. They learn best through physical and mental challenges with opportunities to be brave in their thinking and experimentation. For example, children may need to run, jump and walk through puddles many times to check out what happens.

In this way they begin to understand more about the effect of forces on water (Knowledge and Understanding of the World). They learn how to stay steady on their feet on a slippery surface (Physical Development). They might create a little dance about splashing (Creative Development) or say a rhyme (Communication Language and Literacy).

The practitioner's observations of a child's explorations and inventions are vital in both promoting a sense of security and planning for next steps.

In number four of her ten bedrock principles of early education, Tina Bruce notes, 'Children learn best when they are given appropriate responsibility, allowed to experiment, make errors, decisions and choices and are respected as autonomous learners' (Early Childhood Education).

Challenge is an integral part of children's lives, and a way for them to move on to the next stage of learning and development. Children need to have strategies to assess risk for themselves from an early age so they can manage their own safety in complex situations.

Research tells us that children engage actively with risk and manage situations that involve chance on a daily basis. Tina Bruce also says that 'safety awareness should open up and not close down learning opportunities' (Cultivating Creativity in Babies, Toddlers and Young Children).

Observations of young children often show the boys in the group are more natural risk-takers than the girls. A key challenge for practitioners is to plan experiences for boys that build on their interests and value their strengths as active learners and problem solvers.

An Ofsted survey of 144 Foundation Stage settings, published in March 2007, suggested that practitioners could address many of the issues around boys' underachievement if they took more responsibility for creating the right conditions for their learning. A setting with a strong ethos of promoting risk taking can impact positively on boys' achievement in particular.

Reflecting on practice

How do you enable all children to experiment and take risks in their learning? Are we utilising boys' learning preferences as starting points for our planning?


Leaders also need to be risk-takers, pushing themselves and others further towards a clear understanding of early childhood care and education.

Steve Mumby (NCSL), addressing delegates at a New Heads conference in 2006, shared this sentiment when he asked leaders to be brave and show boldness and to 'combine courageousness and boldness with careful risk management and planning'.

In the most effective settings, practitioners and leaders support and challenge both their own and children's thinking by getting involved in the process and challenging one another to think differently or bravely as they explore new ideas together.

Some leaders and practitioners interpret risk and challenge narrowly in the context of physical activity. But Margaret Edgington reminds us of the holistic nature of challenge and risk - that it includes not only physical risk and challenge but also social, moral and intellectual risks (The Foundation Stage Teacher in Action: Teaching Three-, Four- and Five-Year Olds).

Reflecting on practice

Do you consider yourself a brave, risk-taking leader, and is your setting one where children and babies are encouraged to be brave?


Our aim has been to challenge practitioners' and leaders' own concepts of bravery and risk taking within the Early Years Foundation Stage framework and to promote a professional dialogue within settings.

Rich and varied learning environments support children's development, giving them the confidence to explore and learn in a secure yet challenging indoor and outdoor space. Challenge and its associated risk are vital for this, and young children need to learn how to recognise and manage risk as life-skills, so as to become able to act safely, for themselves and others.

"Learning is a continuous journey through which children build on all the things they have already experienced and come across new and interesting challenges"

(EYFS Card 3.2 Enabling Environments).


To offer children the full range of challenges that will help them develop physically, emotionally, creatively and intellectually:

- Make sure entrances, exits and boundaries offer security so that practitoners can have peace of mind to allow children to roam and explore freely.

- Have a variety of surfaces and slopes in a setting to promote interest, encourage perspective and promote physical skills.

- Ensure that risk assessments enable rather than restrict children's experiences.

- Provide a variety of natural surfaces and objects, indoors and outside. Provide activities and opportunities that develop fine and gross motor skills.

- Use SEAD and other PSE materials to support the development of social skills.

- Allow children opportunities to sort out disputes and negotiate with their peers whenever possible.

- Include children when making and negotiating rules and expectations in settings.

- Ensure that adults explain their decision-making and expectations.

- Use open-ended questions when talking with children.

- Provide opportunities for children to take part in investigative activities.



National Strategies Resources

- Early Years Foundation Stage: Setting the standards for learning, development and care for children from birth to five. DCSF, May 2008 (Ref: 00261-2008PCK-EN)

- Guidance on Outdoor Learning Effective Practices. DCSF, 2007 (Ref: 00012-2007CDO-EN)

- Social and Emotional Aspects of Development: Guidance for EYFS practitioners. DCSF, 2008 (Ref: 00707-2008BKT-EN)

- Early Years Vision and Values for Outdoor Play. Learning Through Landscapes

- Confident, Capable and Creative: Supporting boys' achievements. National Strategies, DCSF, 2007 (Ref: 00682-2007BKT-EN)

- The materials are available online at: www.standards.dcsf.gov.uk/nationalstrategies. Search using the item's reference number or title.


- Bruce, T (2004) Cultivating Creativity in Babies, Toddlers and Young Children. Hodder and Stoughton

- Bruce, T, Early Childhood Education. Hodder and Stoughton

- Edgington, M (2004) The Foundation Stage Teacher in Action: Teaching Three-, Four- and Five-Year-Olds. Paul Chapman

- Edgington, M (2007) 'Supporting young children to engage with risk and challenge'. Early Years Update, May 2007

- Cartwright-Hatton, S (2007) 'Family treatment of child anxiety: outcomes, limitations and future directions'. Clinical Child Family Psychological Review 10(3), pp.232-52

- Cartwright-Hatton, S (2007) Coping with the Anxious or Depressed Child: A guide for parents and carers. Oneworld Publications

- Lindon, J (1999) Too Safe for Their Own Good. National Children's Bureau.

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