5 Tips to Encourage Risk-Friendly Play
Amy has more than 10 years of experience as an early childhood educator, both in the classroom and the museum setting. In her current role, she focuses on staff professional development, program evaluation, coaching, and consulting for the Center for Childhood Creativity. Previously, she spent six years directing early childhood education strategic initiatives at the Bay Area Discovery Museum and a large science center in the Midwest. She was a classroom teacher, primarily for preschool, prior to her work in museums. She currently sits on the First 5 Marin Commission and was a founding member of the Leadership Team for the Association of Science and Technology Centers Early Childhood Community of Practice. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in music and a Master of Education degree in early childhood education.
As Director of Research at the Bay Area Discovery Museum, Helen authors original research on creative thinking and child development including the white papers Inspiring a Generation to Create, Reimagining School Readiness, and Roots of STEM Success. She launched and manages the onsite research lab at the Bay Area Discovery Museum and partners with U.C. Berkeley and Stanford University to conduct empirical research on cognitive, social, and emotional development, with a focus on creative problem solving. She brings more than 18 years of experience in research and education settings, including years in the technology and toy industries conducting research with parents and children to develop innovative learning products at Hasbro, Apple, Leapfrog, and LEGO. Helen received her doctorate in Developmental Psychology from Stanford University and has taught at U.C. Davis and San Francisco State University.
- Pay attention to your child’s emotional state. Ensure your child is in a healthy emotional state before offering a challenge.
- Avoid generic feedback like “be careful” or “watch out.” Try saying “Watch your feet” as they maneuver down a steep hill or “Look in the direction you want to go” while riding a bike.
- Allow them to assess their own readiness for risk, when feasible. Asking “Have you tested that branch before putting your whole body’s weight on it?” allows children to judge for themselves what challenges are appropriate, and they quickly become remarkably adept.
- Don’t do it for them. This robs them of the ability to gain confidence and accurately assess risks- and potentially endangers them if they are unable to get out of the situation safely by themselves.
- Let your child see you make a mistake and respond positively. Children’s ideas on whether mistakes are a part of the learning process or unacceptable often come from watching you respond to your own mistakes. Try “staging” a mistake if you must!
One of the hardest things to do as a parent is letting your child take risks. Your heart skips a beat when they climb too high, cut an apple with a sharp knife, or bike to school by themselves for the first time. While no parent wants to see their child get hurt, risk is a critical part of development. Risk involves testing our capabilities and pushing our limitations—both key components of learning and creativity.
When supporting your children to take risks, it is important to be mindful of how they are feeling emotionally. That is, children who are in a good place emotionally will be more confident and open to embracing new experiences and trying out new ideas. Positive emotions—such as satisfaction, joy, belonging, and wonder—help the brain focus and enhance openness, flexibility, and memory. Research supports the important role of positive emotions in enhancing problem solving and creativity.
Novel experiences, including frequent opportunities to experience something new or see things from another person’s perspective, also help children develop their creativity skills. In a clever study examining the link between unusual or unexpected experiences and creative thinking, college students walked through a virtual reality environment that appeared to defy the laws of physics. After just a few minutes of this experience, those students performed better on a cognitive flexibility (“thinking outside the box”) task than other students who had walked through a normal scene, or merely watched a video of the same physics-violating events. These findings suggest that novel experiences that children actively, as opposed to vicariously, experience can encourage them to make new connections and be more creative.
Parents can help their child to build persistence and openness to new experiences by cultivating a growth mindset: the belief that intelligence is malleable and can be developed with hard work and effort.
Research on mindset has had one of the biggest impacts on education in decades and demonstrates that when faced with challenging situations, children with a growth mindset display resilience and use effort to overcome difficulty. In contrast, children with a fixed mindset, who think of intelligence as unchangeable and static, give up easily and avoid future challenges. By normalizing failure, adults can help children understand that trying new things and making mistakes is part of the learning process. For example, adding the word “yet” to the end of a phrase can encourage children to keep trying: “You haven’t learned to cut with scissors yet.”