6 Ways to Encourage Positive Risk Taking

When a child is faced with a new situation, they may experience fear, vulnerability, or lack of control. Sometimes they really want to try something, but this fear holds them back. Yet risky play gives children a richer childhood, as well as rehearsal for life where they gain tools needed to grow and develop. So what can you do to create a healthy relationship with risk taking? How can you help a child who may be hesitant to give something a go? It’s difficult to balance between pushing them, gently encouraging them not to give up and stepping back and trusting their intuition.

Here are 6 ways to encourage your child and set up healthy habits around positive risk taking:

1) Slowly, slowly – Introduce increased risk gradually

Take things slow and let your child warm up into a new experience. Work within their comfort levels and physical ability, slowly increasing the level of difficulty of a task or exposure to a new situation.
One good strategy for increasing their exposure and capability is to break down an activity by skill. This helps a child feel secure as they build up to a bigger challenge.

For example, walking on a balance beam. You can start your child by walking along a line on the floor, then when a little more confident a floor balance beam. They may then walk on a higher beam with some assistance until they feel ready to tackle it on alone.

2) Language – use meaningful phrases and discuss strategy

Have a meaningful conversation with your child. Avoid repeating phrases that are fearful and lack useful information, for example: “Be careful” – “Don’t go there” – “That’s dangerous, get down”. Instead, use phrases that prompt strategic thinking or allow room for the child’s decision making to be included. Ask your child to be involved in solving their problem, inviting them to share their thoughts on what might happen in the scenario or how they can overcome any challenges.

These are some positive ways to spark strategic thinking: “Where can you put your hand next?” – “Show me how careful you can be” – “If you climb up, how do you think you can get back down?” – “That rock is very slippery because of the green moss. If you slip on it, you could fall into the water. Only walk on rocks without green moss.” You can also praise your child meaningfully with positive language, for example: “You did it! You walked across the rocks and I could see you avoided all the ones with green moss. Well done!”

Note: It can be very mentally draining to engage in these conversations. Just do the best you can and ask loved ones to join you in approaching your children with the same questions. Any amount of positive conversation is better than nothing!

3) Discuss learning from failure and focus on effort

Using a growth mindset, encourage your child to recognise their effort while validating their disappointment from failure. You don’t need to dwell on the failure for a long time either. You can: validate, highlight effort, and discuss the learning opportunity. Some children would prefer not to take a risk, to avoid failure. By teaching them to appreciate their effort, instead of focusing on the end result, they will learn the journey is important and failure is a part of the process.

You could say: “Oh no, you fell off that rock. Are you feeling upset and disappointed? Yes, it can be frustrating. I saw how hard you worked to climb up to the top, you used your strong muscles and didn’t give up. Why do you think you fell down? Was that part of the rock extra slippery?”

4) Be the example – model behaviour

You are your child’s biggest influence. Even if you aren’t saying anything, they will feed off your energy. If you are a risk taker, you are likely to send the message that it’s okay to try difficult tasks and you are likely to support your child and therefore reinforce positive risk taking. However, if you are risk averse you might inadvertently avoid circumstances that seem too risky, or you can struggle to help your child overcome their own fears. That’s all okay, but it’s good to be aware of your own personality. If you are in the latter category, you are also likely to be able to empathise with your child.
If you struggle to think on the spot, you can plan time to ‘model’ behaviour too. For example, decide that you will show your child how to take a risk climbing up a big ladder at the park.

5) Don’t Force It, Yet Don’t Immediately Give Up – GET CREATIVE

Children who are scared don’t learn well, and they can’t be reasoned with using logic. The emotional side of their brain takes over and they won’t be motivated to try again if they have been pushed into something before they feel ready. You want your child to have a positive association with risk taking. While you might want to desperately try to convince your child that they will love it, and it’s fun, that won’t address their fear. You need to find the balance between letting them experience the risk and providing help. Offer your support at the most minimal level the child can emotionally and physically handle so they can feel both secure AND confident in their abilities when they do achieve the task.

Some phrases to try: “This feels very hard, so let’s take a break and try again a bit later.” – “What can I do to help you feel happier to try again?” – “You can do it. You are safe with me and I am here to help you.”

6) Make time for physical play.

Time for physical play is so important for children. Take opportunities that arise, such as a walk to the local shops, and dedicate time as well. For example, KinderGym is a wonderful way to help children explore fundamental movement skills in a safe environment with both coaches and parents present.
Practice positive risk taking with your children and over time you can step back more and more and just watch them blossom.

This post is part of our KinderGym series on positive risk taking. 
Previously: 9 Benefits of Positive Risk Taking in Early Childhood