Saturday, September 15, 2012

Toddler Risk Taking

Things are settling down here with S in the house so I think I may be able to get back to some writing finally.  A little disclaimer here...He is the inspiration for this particular post, even though it happens to be classroom related.

There has been a lot of debate in the past few years about whether playgrounds can be too safe, as this article from the New York Times explains and appropriate risk taking by young children. Deborah at Teach Preschool, Teacher Tom and many others have written some excellent posts on the subject. For many years, I have pretty much let my toddlers take risks and do things that many toddler teachers would stop. You typically won't hear me tell a child not to stand on the couch or crawl under the table. It is not uncommon to find a toddler in my class standing on a chair to put more blocks on a tower taller than they are, carry objects around that appear too heavy, let them go for a walk on campus and not have to hold a teacher's hand or just simply get dirty.

At the same time, there are specific things I won't allow. Children are not allowed to sit on tables or run through the quieter areas of the classroom, such as the book or art areas. With each new group of children, the rules are tweaked.  In the name of safety, one rule that never changes is that teachers are not to put children onto a structure that they cannot climb onto on their own. If a child cannot climb into or onto something, then they likely cannot get down from it safely. Or, they develop a false sense of confidence and end up attempting something they are not physically ready for, resulting in a preventable injury.

With each new group of children, the rules change slightly and seem to become a little more relaxed. We had a rule last fall that children could not use chairs to climb on top of the tunnels on the playground. I had let a couple try it and quickly ended it when two children launched themselves from their chairs completely over the tunnels, landing face first in the mud on the other side with decent cuts and bruises. By the spring, they had developed more physical coordination and we ended that rule. You can only hear yourself or your co-teacher tell a child so many times that chairs do not belong at the tunnels to finally realize it might be time to let them try again. This time, they slowed down, paid closer attention and no one ended up getting hurt.

I'm not saying we change the rules on a whim or just let the toddlers do what they want. We evaluate the situation, the children's current development in all areas and, the group dynamic before changing a rule. With the younger toddlers in the classroom, we had decided it would be safer if we didn't allow the walkers to take wheeled toys, like the strollers and cars, up and down the ramps in the movement area. It wasn't that we thought the children using the toys would get hurt but, concern that they might not notice a younger, less stable toddler in the area and that child might just get run over. But, having the rule in place did not stop the children from taking these wheeled toys on the ramps frequently. We tried several strategies to stop it until one day, I saw my little guy and another boy carefully walking up the ramp with the cars under them. One of the teachers started to remind them of the rule when I said to her, "Let's just see where this goes." We remained close (and quiet) in case one of us needed to intervene as we continued to observe. Remarkably, they managed to repeat this several times without anyone getting hurt or even falling down really.

We picked up some great information about these boys as we watched them maneuver around each other. Often, one was heading down as the other was going up and they adjusted their positions so that they didn't crash into each other or cause one another to fall off. There were times they ended up in the same spot and had to carefully maneuver their cars into position without knocking the other child off. They learned to be aware of where the other one was on the ramp, how much space each car needed and were more aware of their bodies in the space.  They learned how to solve some new problems, both physical and social.  So, we decided to eliminate that rule for the time being. With subsequent groups, we may have to revisit. Only time will tell.

The ramps in question.

Which isn't to say we haven't had accidents. One child tried to go down backward and ended up on his back in the process. He has since re-thought the wisdom in that and now goes down facing forward or goes slower to avoid rolling over again. We also don't just leave them to their own devices or let them get crazy. Someone is usually in that area or very close and we have no problem stepping in and helping a child re-think an idea that we are pretty sure will result in injury or something being damaged.  As a result of this indoor rule change, we finally decided to relax the outdoor rules and let them ride wheeled toys down the hill (again my little guy was the leader of the pack- I still haven't decided if that is a good or bad thing!), as you will see in the video below. You will actually hear me mention appropriate risk taking. One of the other teachers asked if she stop the boy at the bottom of the hill and I decided not to. You will notice that not only does he stop when he sees my little guy coming down but, my little guy also changed his path when he noticed the boy at the bottom.