A Dash of Risk


Beginning a new school year is rife with uncertainty.  An unknown routine, strange surroundings, and rooms full of unfamiliar people all contribute to a high level of stress for both children and adults.  Will I know what to do? Will I like what I’m asked to do? What will happen if I’m afraid to try or, worse, try and fail?  Luckily, the reality is that our species has learned to adapt quickly.  Unfortunately, our emotional brains frequently forget this, leading to a fear of risk.

Within our educational bubble, we define risk as an opportunity to take a chance or explore an unknown.  It can involve physical, mental, and emotional tasks.  It becomes an acceptable risk when the consequence for failure is not life threatening nor seriously detrimental to the health and welfare of others.  A risk worth taking must present a substantial benefit that is not off-set by possible treacherous outcomes.

Our children encounter a multitude of risk-taking opportunities everyday.  Some of them seem benign to adults; putting marks on paper, talking to a peer or adult, trying out a new material in play.  Others can make adults nervous, but are important for child development; jumping between two rocks, attempting a joke that ends up embarrassing your parents, hanging upside-down, judging the speed needed to run downhill, using scissors to chop chop chop.

Our job is to assess the risks they encounter and balance the potential of the outcome against the possible danger.

Within our classroom, we recognize the risks children meet everyday provide an opportunity to either learn something new or reinforce previous concepts.  Our job is to assess the risks they encounter and balance the potential of the outcome against the possible danger. Our students should leave school comfortable with taking reasonable chances and willing to try something new.  Innovation cannot happen without a moderate comfort with risk.

We want our children to be able practice assessing risks, as well.  While making decisions about small risks such as drawing something you’ve never drawn before, their neurons are practicing for the bigger risks they’ll need to evaluate later.  In this way, children practice making choices based on weighing the options.

Interested in learning more about risk in childhood?

Risky Play: Why Children Love It and Need It

Outdoor risky play for all

Taking Risks


Taking Risks


The first few days of school are filled with risks.  All of us, from the Pre-K student to the most senior teacher, feel this.  Our children have to navigate a new set of routines, manage new personality dynamics, make friends, keep friends, decipher the emotional tone of their new class, and figure out who they will be for the next few days.  Taking acceptable risks when steering through all of this can be daunting.  Grown-ups can put it into words, “What if I fail?”  Children usually aren’t able to put it so succinctly.

“Risk” has a bad rep most of the time.  People generally relate this word with failure or danger. Now try to refocus your lens.  Instead, imagine risk as possible variables in an experiment.  True, one needs to weigh the danger (emotional, social, physical, or otherwise) inherent in the particular component, yet, without testing variables, we cannot evaluate the effectiveness of our behavior.

In class, a child chooses whether or not these risks are worth it:

  • Waiting for a peer to speak to them first
  • Waiting for a teacher to call on them
  • Yelling/Calling out the answers
  • Speaking up for their own rights (i.e. I don’t like this game. I don’t want chase you.)
  • Asking to go to the bathroom
  • Saying goodbye to a parent
  • Raising a hand during meetings
  • Attempting to write their name
  • Drawing a picture
  • Joining a group or single friend in play
  • Making a mark on a piece of paper

We want our children to be comfortable taking the risks that promote growth.  It is for this reason that we create an environment that welcomes mistakes, experiments, discussion, and observation.  All of the children in our room are capable of great things.  We want to make sure they are willing to build the attempts to get them there.


For more on risk, persistence, and grit see Forbes’ 5 Characteristics of Grit — How Many Do You Have?


Have you ever watched a baby conduct a social experiment? You know, the kind where he/she drops a spoon from the high chair nine thousand times during breakfast. That is persistence.  It can also be quite frustrating for the adult involved.  However, the baby is quite content to drop the spoon over and over and over.  He/She is learning many things during this activity.

  • Spoons always fall down.
  • Somebody will pick up the spoon and return it.
  • When the spoon drops, people make sounds.
  • The spoon did not disappear off the face of the planet.
  • Falling spoons make people smile/cry/yell/giggle/pull hair from their heads.

Imagine the baby only dropped the spoon once.  What would be learned? How many connections to the effects of a fallen spoon would the child be able to make?  The answer is not many.

A magnetic marble maze.
A magnetic marble maze.

Our brains learn through making connections.  We connect new stimuli to memories of previous experiences. We connect current information to the current input from our senses.  (How do we feel? What do we smell? What is our emotional climate during this experience?)  As we interact we connect possible ideas, or hypotheses, to present circumstances.

Supporting all of this thinking is a willingness to continue to experiment even in the face of mistakes.  This is persistence.  Babies don’t think twice about attempting the same action ad infinitum.  It is only later, around four years of age, that we begin to see our selves as “not good” at certain things. We begin to believe that only those with “talent” can accomplish a task.

Spent the entire morning peeling this walnut with her bare hands.
Spent the entire morning peeling this walnut with her bare hands.

In Pre-K we are right on the edge of that bubble.  Many of the children still believe that they can learn anything.  We want to encourage that feeling because the truth is, they can.  Anything we wish to do well requires practice.  Persisting at daunting activities must be practiced, as well.  We must allow children the opportunity to face low-risk failure (a puzzle piece doesn’t fit, a friend gets angry, the milk is spilled, it turns out that 20, 30, 60, 40 is not how you count) now.  The price is not high and they can easily make another attempt. With practice, persistence will remain second nature.