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Letting Go…Taking Smart Risks

Watching your preschooler’s face as he or she figures out something for the first time, or puts two ideas together to create a third, is priceless. Kids ages 3 to 6 are eager to show their independence by seeking new information and opportunities to learn about themselves and the world around them. Parents might hesitate at the thought of letting go, but it’s important to know when and how to let go safely. Children learn through investigating their environments by watching, listening, and then imitating. They learn best when they are happy and when they feel safe.

How children approach new experiences depends on their temperament and, to an extent, their prior experiences. Some children embrace new experiences with enthusiasm and are natural risk-takers and may need to occasionally be reined in for their own safety. Other children are cautious or resist anything new and are naturally shy. The willingness to explore and feed their curiosity may depend on the child’s maturity and natural anxieties about trying new things. Helping children overcome these fears and anxieties will go a long way in boosting their self-confidence and widening their outlook on the world. Helping children take safe risks while they are young increases their capacity to trust themselves to make independent, appropriate judgments and decisions.

Encouraging Smart Risk-Taking
Taking risks is important for learning, but parents and other caregivers will want to encourage smart risk-taking. Young children are unable to recognize what is safe and unsafe. It is your job to provide a safe environment for them to explore. Once their physical safety is reasonably assured, turn them loose but with your continued supervision. Below are some tips for managing your child’s safe risk-taking.

  • Let children choose their own activities. Children’s choices may not always make much sense to adults, but often children choose activities that exercise their imaginations and develop their creativity. Follow your children’s lead when it comes to play. Play is most valuable to children when they lead the activity. Remember not to push them to do things when they don’t want to.

  • Redirect unsafe play. Some children are fearless; however, they also have a limited understanding of what is safe and what is not. In this instance, continual supervision is necessary. Distract them from an unsafe activity and redirect them toward safer play. For example, the little acrobat who just climbed on top of the kitchen counter, intending to leap off with a single bound, can be redirected toward leaping off a chair onto a pile of cushions placed on the floor.

  • Trial-and-error. We all learn through trial and error and young children are no exception. Often, though, small failures can dissuade some children from further attempts at completing a task (“I can’t DO it.”). Help them deal with the frustration with a phrase like, “If at first you don’t succeed, try again,” which they can say to themselves when they need encouragement. Also, point out instances when you have made a mistake that you corrected and/or let them in on something new you are learning to do.

Encouraging Shy Children

Shyness can be due to fear, stress, and anxiety. Almost all preschoolers show some shyness in new situations or with new people. It is normal if you child often acts shy during the first few minutes of a new situation. However, some children simply have more difficulty moving into new places or social groups. It is important to allow shy children time to set their own pace, rather than trying to push them past their comfort zone. Usually, a little extra time and familiarity with the individuals and the environment will help them emerge and participate fully. This is where you, as parents, can be proactive. Shyness decreases with practice. Here are some tips to remember:

  • When considering a new group situation (dance class, play group), introduce your child to one member of the group ahead of time so he or she has an “anchor” when meeting the entire group.

  • If your child is entering a new school, go together before the official start of school to see the classroom and meet the new teacher. This will allow your child to become familiar with the new classroom environment.

  • Role-play what might occur in a new situation. For example, role-play meeting a new teacher, heading to a birthday party, asking another child to play a game, or share a toy. The more practice, the more natural these skills will become. 

  • When your child hangs back in a new situation, allow him or her to cling a few minutes while you reassure your child that you understand how he or she feels. Staying calm and relaxed is key for your child to feel safe.

  • Remember to praise your children` for their successful efforts in being brave and overcoming their own fears and anxieties.

Although it is necessary to set rules about key issues, it is equally important to honor children’s choices, support and recognize the many small tasks achieved daily. Setting a safe environment is vital for young learners to continue to explore their world in order to gain self-confidence for a healthy, independent life.

Family Activity: Taking Chances

Educator Activity: Taking Smart Risks

Quiz for Parents: Should I Risk It?


American Academy of Pediatrics
Growing Independence: Tips for Parents of Young Children” (PDF 340KB) provides helpful tips for parents to guide them through the different steps of becoming independent.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides numerous links to guide parents to resources about how children develop healthy habits and behaviors that will influence their life-long health.

Safe Exploring for Preschoolers” gives parents ideas to encourage exploration in very young children while offering suggestions of what to keep in mind when they do.

Developing Your Child’s Self-Esteem” describes the importance of allowing children to try even if they fail in order to help them develop positive, healthy self-perceptions.
’I Can Do It Myself’: Encouraging Independence in Young Children” shares the importance in allowing children to test their independence as they try new things.

Encouraging a Shy Preschooler to Participate” provides helpful suggestions for engaging shy children to help them open up to new experiences.

Helping a Child Who’s Afraid to Take Risks” provides parent and educators helpful tips to help risk-averse children meet new challenges.

Women’s and Children’s Health Network
Growing and Learning with Preschoolers” points out the importance of play for young children and the environment in which they learn. 

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Updated on 1/16/2013