The Importance of Raising Risk-Takers

At the start of our summer program,  we had our annual teacher in-service.  Ellen Veselack from the Child Educational Center spoke to our staff and faculty about the importance and benefits of risk-taking and encouraging our parents and teachers to develop a trusting relationship with the children to romp in the mud, run around barefoot, and go up on the slide. Her lecture was motivating and inspiring.  Please read the compelling interview with this fantastic researcher and educator.

boys climbing on slide

girl climbing up slide

Interview with Ellen Veselack from the Child Educational Center

Please tell us about yourself: What inspired you to work in Early Childhood Development?

I have always wanted to work with young children, from the time I was in kindergarten. It was simply my path, and I never wavered from it. I have found great joy in working with children and in 36 years have never suffered from burn-out or feeling like I needed a career switch. I did move into my current position as the Director of the Preschool Program ten years ago, and it has been an amazing job. I still get to not only connect with children on a regular basis, but I have the extreme pleasure of working with staff. It is so rewarding and fulfilling talking with staff, helping them grow and, in the process, growing myself.

As the Director of the Preschool Program at the Child Educational Center, how do you inspire children to take risks at the same time remain safe?

It really boils down to trusting children and staff. Children are so capable and competent when given the opportunity. It is important to distinguish between a hazard and a risk. Hazards are those things in the environment that are unexpected and, if encountered unknowingly, could prove harmful to the child. A risk is something that children take on, or not, willingly and with conscious decision making.  It is in risk-taking that children fully begin to understand who they are and what they are capable of. So, I work with staff and we talk about what our view of the child is. Are children strong, capable, and competent? Or are they fragile, at risk, and in danger? These views heavily influence what we allow children to experience. Are we trying to protect them at all costs? Or is some amount of discomfort — physically, emotionally, and socially — beneficial?

Heather Shumaker talks about risk in her latest book, It’s OK to GO UP the Slide. She explains that children need some risk in all aspects of their development in order to be strong, self-confident, and capable. Taking risk away from children does not serve them well! Having said that, it is important to recognize that allowing risk-taking behavior does not absolve teachers from close supervision, quality teacher engagement, and redirection when necessary. It is the excellence and quality of the teachers that makes this work so beautifully in a program.

young girl jumping

What are some of the benefits you’ve witnessed with encouraging risk-taking among young children?  What does it teach them?

What doesn’t it teach them? Shumaker lists 27 benefits to allowing children the opportunity to take risks and, I have to say, I have seen all of them (and more)! My list includes managing their fears, growing resiliency, gaining confidence, increasing their judgment skills, growing in problem-solving, experiencing pride and joy in true accomplishments, learning in all ways, pushing themselves, and knowing themselves better.  It truly is remarkable to watch young children take on reasonable risks and watch what happens for them. They may be tentative at first, but with each step their confidence grows, as does their skill and competence.  We have had children enroll in our Preschool Program and it is clear that risk-taking has not been a part of their experience. They are tentative, unsure, and lack confidence. We encourage them to take on small risks, assuring them it is okay and they are capable. It doesn’t take them long to get the hang of it, as children are by nature, pretty good risk-takers. They are so much more capable than we ever give them credit for!

How can parents effectively encourage risk-taking with their children, but in a smart, safe, and effective way?

It is important to assess the risks we allow children to undertake. We don’t allow children to climb up onto the roof, though several, I’m sure, are quite capable. That isn’t a reasonable risk. If this is your first foray into letting go, then do it slowly. Resist the urge to caution them with comments like “Be careful” and “Watch out.” These words don’t actually help. You also have to know your child and what is a reasonable risk for them. It isn’t the same for all children. You have to trust them to be successful and to deal with a skinned knee or a tumble with resiliency. I think it is much harder for parents to do this as their emotional connection to their child is so much stronger than it is for teachers.  I would also recommend some books for parents to read. Shumaker’s book for sure, but also Free-Range Kids by Lenore Skenazy and The Importance of Being Little by Erika Christakis. I find it helpful to read what the experts are saying and the supportive research that backs it up.

kids climbing on jungle gym

Is there a way to assess a child’s ability/inclination to take risks to make sure they are encouraged within a realistic boundary?

Again, take it slowly if you are doing this for the first time. You don’t want the first risk you allow your 4-year-old to take to be climbing to the top of the tree if they have never climbed a tree before. You’ll be a nervous wreck and your child will be taking a risk beyond their potential capabilities. Start slowly and observe them. Pay attention to how they are assessing their own risk. What do they do before hand? How do they handle missteps? Do they demonstrate resiliency? Can they pick themselves up, brush themselves off, and start all over again? Are they demonstrating fear? If so, then the risk is probably too much and some gentle coaching, “If this feels too scary to you, you might want to try again later” is in order. Also, demonstrate confidence and trust in them outwardly, even if you are a bit nervous on the inside. What we do know from research is that children who are allowed to take risk actually take far more reasonable risks and get hurt less often than children who are not allowed to take risks. So in our attempts to keep children safe at all costs, we actually create more danger for them. How ironic is that? We want children to grow in the best possible way, in all areas of development. Allowing children to take reasonable risks in a safe environment, with loving, engaged adults nearby is a perfect way to help them do this.

kids standing on swings


If you enjoyed this post we invite you to read our blog, “The Importance of Music Education for Young Children.”

Carmel Mountain Preschool provides a safe and caring environment with hands-on, developmentally-appropriate programs for children. We also offer excellent care for elementary school-age students with our before and after school programs. CMP is located at 9510 Carmel Mountain Road, San Diego, CA 92129, situated between 4S Ranch, Rancho Peñasquitos, Carmel Valley, and Santaluz. For more information, please visit our website or contact us at 858.484.4877.

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