Positive relationships: All in a day's work - risk and challenge

Saffia Farr
Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Providing a challenging environment can be a challenge in itself, says Saffia Farr

In January, I attended the Nursery World Show and an excellent seminar on risk by Helen Tovey, a principal lecturer in Early Childhood Studies at Roehampton University and author of Playing Outdoors: Spaces and Places, Risks and Challenge (Open University Press).

She shared a quote from Margaret McMillan: 'Children should play bravely and adventurously in a provocative environment.' We were asked what we felt about children climbing higher than our heads or painting from ladders leaning against walls. Helen explained the theory: if children are not exposed to risk, they cannot learn how to manage it. However, many delegates raised the issue that although we might know the theory, how in practice do we accommodate parents' attitudes?

As a parent, I make decisions about what I'm happy for my children to do. These limits will differ with every parent. I've realised that while encouraging my sons to be more independent and adventurous in their play, I'm also using words of caution too often. At the seminar, Helen Tovey asked, 'What do we do to children if we keep saying "Don't do that. You'll fall"?' She reminded delegates of a quote by Froebel: 'A boy who has not been exposed to risk will not know his capabilities and is more likely to encounter danger.'

So, how do we balance the needs of children with the varied opinions of parents? Marion Dowling wrote (Nursery World, 11 March 2010): 'Being in loco parentis means taking an approach of a sensible parent, and sensible parents don't wrap their children in cotton wool.' However, even staff will disagree about what is a sensible balance for nursery.

We discussed these issues at cascade training. At first, staff were adamant that parents just wanted us to keep their children safe. We reviewed the use of the word 'safe'; should settings be as safe as possible, or as safe as necessary? We agreed that there are differences between 'risks' and 'hazards' and that it's important for staff to feel confident in their reasons for encouraging adventurous play so they can share this with parents.

We intend to engage parents in discussion to explain the benefits of challenging play and to better understand their views. Each nursery has started using tools, producing interesting reactions from staff, children and parents, which I will write about next month.

Teaching children to manage risk is not just about allowing them to climb up trees. We all need to ask: are we providing a challenging, stimulating and provocative environment?

- Saffia Farr is a director and manager of Bristol Childcare, a family-run nursery group established for 39 years. She has three young children and writes on parenting issues at www.saffiafarr.com

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