In the United States, we have a tendency to treat “risk” and “safety” as antonyms. Somewhere along the way, educators, administrators, and legislators all agreed that the fastest and most effective way to keep children safe was to eliminate danger from their school environments. My public education was rife with pea gravel, safety scissors, glue sticks, and non-toxic markers. I have vivid childhood memories of being repeatedly told not to climb the only tree on the perimeter of the playground at my elementary school even though its branches were barely two feet off the ground. Recess monitors regularly implemented phrases like “you could break your head open” and “you might wind up in the hospital” in an attempt to dissuade students from jumping out of swings and leaping from playground equipment.
When the safety of students is at stake, it is very tempting to hermetically seal our learning environments. If something seems potentially dangerous, we have a knee-jerk reaction to nip it in the bud. If it is a learning material, we immediately extract it from the classroom. If it is a behavior, we sternly shut it down before anything bad can happen. I sometimes find myself sitting in my classroom like a wary mother deer, watching our two-year-old boys play while scanning their immediate vicinity for potentially dangerous objects. Over time, I’ve come to realize that my classroom is full of objects your average person would deem “potentially dangerous”: glass beads, animal bones, assorted bits of wood, and root clusters just to name a few. Our outdoor environment is no different. It is filled with stumps and logs for climbing and balancing, rubber mallets, gardening tools, baskets of small loose parts, mulch, ice, and thorny vines. The more time I spent gawking at the potential pitfalls and choking hazards around the school, the more I felt disaster was just around the corner. I spent more and more time each day chiding students, constantly repeating my mantras of “be careful,” “keep your feet on the ground,” and “control your energy.”
Our responsibility to keep children safe is extremely important, but it isn’t our only responsibility. For Reggio educators, respecting students’ right to learn in a safe environment is inherently difficult because, when approached from an absolutist standpoint, it can supersede and defeat other extremely important rights. While students do have a right to be safe, they also have a right to freely explore and direct their own learning journey. Safety doesn’t stem from unyielding reminders not to climb on the furniture or run inside. These reminders not only stop students from pursuing their investigations, they also sap the energy of teachers who should be acting not just as guardians, but also as co-investigators. Safety should never stifle curiosity.
The truth is that removing every potentially dangerous object from a learning environment doesn’t make it safe, it just makes it empty. Safety starts in the mind of the students. Children conceptualize safety by exploring boundaries and testing the limits of their physical and social-emotional faculties. Encouraging students to be safe isn’t about removing danger from their environment at all, but in fact the exact opposite. Cultivating safety in the classroom is about giving children a controlled environment to take risks.
Although it might seem counter-intuitive, risk-taking and safety aren’t antithetical; they are causally connected. When students take risks, they are exercising problem-solving skills and executive functions. Taking a risk requires children to identify a potentially dangerous situation, accurately assess their own abilities, and ultimately make a judgement call as to whether they think a course of action is safe or not. Often times, they are better at assessing than we think; many students have a very acute knowledge of their own physical and mental abilities. Sometimes their assessment leaves something to be desired, which ends in an injury or a disappointment. Both outcomes are learning opportunities.
Avoiding the latter altogether by imposing a top-down approach to safety on students ends up disrupting the cycle of learning. Safety becomes a function of whether or not students choose to follow rules that sometimes seem arbitrary. In an environment of risk-taking, the decision to act or not act comes from the student, not a nearby adult, which means lessons are learned more organically. In reality, safety is personally defined, not absolute. What is safe for one student might not be safe for another because every child develops differently. By cultivating the skill of risk assessment, each student can create a custom-tailored set of guidelines for their own behavior that facilitates their learning instead of restricting it.
That is where teachers come in. Working with students to identify and assess risks helps them gain a deeper understanding of what they can and cannot do, but it also cultivates a bond of trust between students and teachers. When children trust their teachers to help them assess risks, safety can become negotiated in much the same way that curriculum is. Students who serially underestimate their own abilities might be more likely to take a risk with gentle guidance from an adult who has proven to have an understanding of their personal abilities. Likewise, students who serially overestimate their own abilities are more likely to ask for extra assistance when they feel the need to take an especially big risk.
In short, risk-taking is the process of establishing safety organically. It is a way for teachers and individual students to come together and establish a framework of reasonable expectations. By taking risks, children can ascertain a more finite sense of what their bodies and minds need to be capable of before attempting something dangerous. For teachers, risk-taking creates a system by which unnecessary restriction can be avoided and student relationships can be strengthened.
Working alongside my students with a more open mind has helped me reevaluate how I conceptualize safety. One of the two-year-olds in our class can climb thin trees hand-over-hand with barely any assistance. Another can jump off a log four feet off the ground, landing on his feet every time. Our older students regularly help out with hot gluing, laminating, and paper cutting. Every day, I discover something new my students can do simply by suppressing my knee-jerk reaction to stop them. By giving them the space they need to take risks, I now have the pleasure of watching them grow by leaps and bounds.