I recently took my daughter to her friend’s birthday party at a soft-play centre. It was the usual raucous affair with children having lots of fun as they climbed, ran and crawled their way through the various obstacles on offer.

What transpired halfway through, led me to reassess entrenched behaviours that have been very difficult to undo. At this point, I must make the admission that I was the only parent who remained by their child’s side (in case of any altercations or accidents!) My behaviour undoubtedly stems from my childhood experiences: my mother and I lived in a notorious high-rise block of flats in Hackney, which was ill-famed for its drug-dealers, violence and general anti-social behaviour (all four blocks were consequently demolished in 1997). Hence, I was not allowed to play outdoors with my friends. In fact, my mother was an all-round bundle of nerves whose fear prevented me from engaging in most childhood experiences (and taking potentially life-saving swimming lessons). Et voilà! The cycle almost continued…

Trepidation, resilience or robust attitudes are instilled by parents and early years practitioners, and these can be implicitly conveyed, say though expressions of fear and anxiety when a child is a faced with daily ‘can I?’ or ‘can’t I?’ scenarios (this applied to me as we reached the top of the obstacle course, faced with the dark, narrow mirrored maze). These adult responses can shape a child’s attitudes to risk-taking well into adulthood and are, as I have learned, difficult to break.

Although most of us appreciate the importance of encouraging other children to take risks in their daily play, it can be difficult to practice as we preach when it comes to our own children. Issues around chronic childhood illness, culture and personal beliefs can work against our better judgment when it comes to cultivating a can-do, positive attitude in young children to step out of their comfort zone. Parents and practitioners therefore need to first address such issues.

Luthar et al (2000) define resilience as “a dynamic process encompassing positive adaptation with the context of significant adversity”. She states that there are two critical conditions that must be met to be resilient: exposure to significant threat or severe adversity and the achievement of positive adaptation. Luthar, like other researchers, proposes that resilience is not a personal trait but a product of the environment and the interaction between the child and the environment. I would add that we are also important here.

Risks and affordances as part of early childhood

Risks can be categorised into different types – emotional, physical, mental and social. Climbing a tree, taking part in sports or approaching new friends to join their play, for example. Each pose an element of risk and the extent of the perceived risk depends on the child’s temperament and the affordances given by adults. In 1977, psychologist Gibson devised his Theory of Affordances. This explains affordances as ‘all action possibilities dormant in the environment, independent of an individual’s ability to recognize them, but always in relation to individuals and therefore dependent on their capabilities’ (Kyttä, 2004; Gibson, 1979). In short, how the environment and adults enable a child to behave and do certain things.

So, what kinds of affordances?

    1. The outdoor environment – this includes its surfaces and resources. You will identify the affordances for running, balancing, sliding, swinging, crawling, climbing and rough-and-tumble play (Sandseter, 2007)
    2. The indoor environment and the different areas and resources within it
    3. Natural materials and elements and open-ended materials
    4. Arguably most important – the inspiring or constraining actions of adults

Understanding individual children’s temperaments

This is integral in knowing how far and in what ways to encourage a child to try something for the first time or to push their own boundaries and venture out of their comfort zones. We can all think of exuberant and resilient children with whom we’ve worked, as well as those who are not so confident and instead, feel anxiety and fear at the prospect of trying something they deem to be risky. How we respond to these different temperaments and offer subsequent support can be the decisive factor in whether they feel able to rise to the challenge or choose to avoid the risk. Roald Dahl (1997: 36) advises that:

…the more risks you allow children to take, the better they learn to take care of themselves. If you never let them take any risks, then I believe they become very prone to injury. Boys should be allowed to climb tall trees and walk along the tops of high walls and dive into the sea from high rocks… The same with girls. I like the type of child who takes risks.

The more readily we afford our children the opportunities to take risks, the more equipped they will be to judge and manage risks for themselves. For a young child, this means judging whether to go for it, what is at risk physically and emotionally and whether the risk is worth it. This all happens in a matter of seconds but can last a life time.

What the science tells us – what’s happening inside the brain of an anxious, stressed child

Let’s say a young child is faced with a challenge in the setting: it could be their first day, it could be their first sports day or their turn to present at ‘show and tell’. At that pivotal moment (and especially if the child is not given the comfort and reassurance she needs to calm down, things can get catastrophic because of this sheer panic (‘what if I can’t do it?’/’What if I hurt myself?’/’Will they laugh at me?’) Thus, the brain enters fight or flight mode – the sympathetic nervous system is activated and here comes the cortisol (I call it catastrophic cortisol in these instances). The brain is now reacting to this frightening situation by flooding the body with the necessary hormones, including cortisol, adrenalin and noradrenaline. Due to this surge of ‘fight’ hormones, the child’s higher order skills (such as concentration, rational thought, problem-solving and planning) become inhibited. This is because the brain has told the child that she is in danger – her heart races, as does her blood pressure and breathing rate. Understandably a child in this state cannot be expected to tackle the task ahead if her mental state is not addressed with due understanding, patience and care: how the parent or practitioner responds can make or break it for this child’s approach to taking risks in the short and long term.

What happens to the child’s brain and body in fight or flight mode:

Why am I sharing this with you?

Children depend on us, both to regulate their environment and to help them regulate their emotions. If your perception of the world is disproportionately negative, it’s likely that you won’t be able to help children to think rationally when faced with difficulty. In fact, if you’re anxious about most things in life, there’s a good chance that your child and the children with whom you work will begin to adopt a similar attitude.  Also, the mental, physical and emotional toll of chronic stress which a child has not been supported to regulate can cause depression, anger and social-anxiety disorders in adulthood (Sethi et al., 2013; the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2011; Twardosz and Lutzker, 2010; De Bellis and Kuchibhatla, 2006; Strathean, 2006; Tarullo and Gunnar, 2006; O’Connor et al., 2005).

We need to exercise empathy and patience and offer strategies to young children who struggle with taking ‘good’ risks. We each have our own fears – facing an interview panel, taking a driving test or entering a room full of strangers and starting a conversation with someone. Yet, our rational brain tells us that we must do these things and that we will be better off emotionally, mentally and socially for rising to these challenges. Our fully developed brains have the wherewithal to do this. Due to the experience-dependent nature of early brain development, we need to trust young children as catalysts for their own learning, as competent persons who are innately driven to engage with the world and push the boundaries of what they think is possible. For me, as an early years professional and as a mother, this means regularly keeping my emotional brain in check in order to ‘free up’ my rational brain. This means trusting my daughter to make choices and try things out for herself – unfettered by my over-cautious presence.

In case you’re wondering what happened when we reached the top of the obstacle course, faced with the dark, narrow mirrored maze: my daughter’s friend grabbed our hands and excitedly shouted ‘don’t worry, ok! It’s really fun!’ Turns out she was right.

The dangers of life are infinite, and among them is safety (Goethe).