Risky business

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Learning is a tricky process, because in order to make progress, we must be willing to take risks, says Sue Cowley.


Sue Cowley

It would be possible to avoid failure, by being very cautious, but life would be very dull indeed if we never did anything challenging. As we grow up, we start to worry about ‘getting it wrong’. Young children don’t really understand the concept of ‘failure’, though – it is an idea that adults pass on to them. Children might get frustrated when things don’t go as they want, but if they fail, they dust themselves down and have another go.

It is tempting for practitioners to jump in and help the children. We say, ‘If you just do it like this…’ or ‘Let me help you with that…’ This is, in part, what teaching is about, but we need to be careful not to cut all the failure out of the equation. People often learn more from their mistakes than they do from their successes. It is important to allow children to get it wrong, so that they can learn how to get it right in the end.

While we need to minimise the risks inherent in some kinds of learning; at the same time we must encourage children to challenge themselves. There are all kinds of risks in our Forest School environment. That long stick could go in someone’s eye, so we must guide the children to point their sticks downwards. Our hands get muddy, which could give us a tummy upset, so we must support the children in learning how to wash their hands properly. But if we were to dig up all the nettles in our forest area, just in case a child ever stung herself, we would not do the children any favours at all.

Modern-day children get far less chance to play freely outside than we did when we were young. There is a fear of ‘stranger danger’, of traffic and other hazards, and many children stay shut up in their rooms rather than experiencing risk. It is heartening to see that settings are now offering their children real tools with which to build, and not the plastic risk-free versions. While clear boundaries are vital, and we must supervise children closely, life is a risky business. And we owe it to our children to help them learn how to cope with that.

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