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Why I let my little one take risks

I've written about fear and leading/teaching/parenting before and you can read about that here. Today I'm going to talk a bit more about why I let my little one make choices that scare me. My choice to let my little one take risks is based in theory by Vygotsky about the Zone of Proximal Development - that we learn in a space of slight discomfort, where we are pushing ourselves to ask questions and try things a bit beyond what we normally do. In my roles as a kayak instructor, backpacking course crew member, teacher, fitness and yoga instructor, and as a Tinkergarten leader, I've been fortunate to receive training in risk management in an array of settings. Most recently, as a mom and early childhood educator, Meghan Fitzgerald's "How to do better than be careful" blog post resonated with me. The first time HG walked down the sidewalk by herself was terrifying. I walked next to her in a half squat down the block. Since then, I've noticed again and again and again how capable this tiny person is! I've gone from swooping in (the pre-speaking version of "Be careful") to trying to step back and be ready to spot or to offer safe choices. In the classroom, I spent two weeks getting students to take one of the most simple and essential risks you can take in learning - asking questions. Asking a question means admitting you don't know something which comes with a gallon of scary feelings in front of your peer group.

When kids can engage in risky play and students can take cognitive risks, they learn more. I listened to a fantastic podcast recently that talked about risky versus hazardous play from the Preschool Podcast by himama. Risks provide people with choice, hazards are unexpected. For example, a risk might be to go down a bigger slide than you have before. A hazard would be going down that slide and landing in a pile of glass you didn't know was there. As a mom, I choose to allow HG to make choices that are sometimes a bit of a risk. BUT that means it is my responsibility to remove hazards - to make sure we are playing in safe surroundings, that HG has shoes that fit, that I know how to spot her when she climbs, and administer basic first aid for inevitable small bumps. As a teacher, I was responsible for creating a class culture in which students could fearlessly ask questions without worrying about being told they were stupid (in words or grades or actions). For little ones, many risks involve evolving gross motor skills. When we let kids climb (like HG and her friend in the pics above), run, walk across rocks, they are developing essential skills like balance, coordination, muscular strength, problem-solving and focus. Eventually, a risk might be saying a new word together or asking a question during class or starting a heated discussion with parents or classmates. Through the choices kids make, especially when a bit of risk is involved, kids learn resilience, creativity, self-advocacy skills (ask for help), and so much more.

The gains for kids and students when we allow them to make choices are immeasurable, but there's another slightly more selfish reason I encourage kiddos I work with to make their own choices and face their own risks. As parents and teachers, one of our primary roles is to gradually release our kiddos into independent adulthood in a democratic society, not to make ourselves useless but to accept that our role in our kids' lives will change drastically. By letting HG take little risks now, I am also choosing to grow with her. The alternative would be to try to keep her in a bubble, to keep her totally safe, to never let her cry or fall or fail. In the classroom, this would be helping students before they need it and then not knowing if they are truly ready for the next course. When we don't let kids exercise choice-making, we often let them practice learned helplessness which leads to fears of incompetence later. I do not want to feel like I have to tear off a band-aid or kick HG out of the nest all of a sudden one day - I want us to grow together towards that. One day, her decision won't be which socks to wear or which rock to keep or which slide to go down. It'll be her choosing friends, going to a dance, driving her car, picking a career, etc. I'd rather do one small thing a day that scares me than wait until HG moves into her first dorm to accept that my kiddo (and every kiddo) is a force to be reckoned with, capable of so incredibly much, even if it involves an occasional stumble.

So what are low-hazard ways to let kids take risks so that we have practice in letting them become independent?

  • Go to a playground or go for a hike. Check the playground for glass. Know how to spot on big equipment (phone away, slight bend in the knees, fingers together like spoons so if you catch a falling kid you don't break your own fingers). Choose a route that is simple and short. Bring water and a first aid kit. Playgrounds and nature provide ample opportunities to choose to take risks, like climbing up big steps, hanging upside down from monkey bars, balancing on a log, getting turned around on a trail, and more. In the classroom, do dorky icebreakers that require some risk - like trust walks or asking students to do one sentence skits in groups within the first week of school (mine made mascots like the butterfly and aluminum foil mountain in the picture above).

  • Read a tough book. A "push" book has no more than 5 words on a page that a kid doesn't know - more than that and you're out of the Zone of Proximal Development and just into frustrated-reader-land. If your kiddo asks what a word means, ask them if they can figure it out using pictures, a dictionary, etc. OR Model you thinking through how to answer the question.

  • Try a new, tough recipe or silly science experiment together. This is such a simple way for you to both take a risk. Your kiddo might make a mess in some new ways, but since you're doing something your unfamiliar with to you'll be modeling resilience. In the classroom, try a lab or problem that challenges even you, like the lab with the pH paper above - this lab never seemed to work perfectly but we did it each year.

  • Say yes to sleepovers, climbing stairs, a bike, swim lessons, whatever scares you a little. BUT, set your boundaries. Maybe the first sleepover is an older cousin sleeping over at your house, then your kiddo sleeping over with an aunt or uncle. Maybe you stand right behind your kid instead of holding their hands on the stairs. Get your kid a bike, but watch videos about bike safety and take the bike away for a day if a helmet is not worn correctly. In the classroom, let your students choose a topic for debate or do a partner quiz. Ask them how they'd teach something (like the melted candy rock cycle above). Worst case scenario, you'll do a bit of reteaching and have a discussion about why you won't be doing a thing again :).

You can do better than be careful, you can let your kiddo take risks and survive. Be brave now so it hurts less later! Share your risks with #watchwonderbloom!

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