From venturing a few feet away to zooming down the slide to trying that new puzzle - children learn about themselves and the world through the risks they're encouraged to take.

0 to 2 by Carla Poole

Hold that baby close - your loving arms are the home base she needs to begin her exploration and mastery of the world. Infants who are cuddled and cooed over become toddlers eager to take risks.

Nurturing relationships are an important source of the self-confidence babies require to take on developmental tasks like learning to crawl and walk.

Nine-month-old Joseph, for instance, crawls a few feet away from his caregiver, Sarah, who is rocking a 2-month-old to sleep. As their eyes meet, Sarah smiles and says, "I see you crawling away." Joseph gurgles and pushes on, practicing his new skill but looking over his shoulder now and again to make sure Sarah is still available for reassurance.

Sarah has earned Joseph's trust through many intimate moments playing with him, singing to him, feeding him, and gently rocking him. He relies on her to give him the courage to take risks and explore his environment.

Fear of Flying

As they grow and learn to walk, children explore and take risks on a whole new level. It takes time to adjust to new skills, and sometimes toddlers become suddenly frightened by their expanding capabilities.

Twenty-month-old Anna, for example, runs after a ball, picks it up, and begins to cry as she realizes that her caregiver is no longer in view. After only a moment apart, Anna crawls into her lap for a reassuring hug. A patient, gentle response helps the toddler feel secure - and gives her the confidence to continue her thrilling but exhausting explorations.

At the same time, some 1-year-olds who are particularly active learners may take great risks with little awareness of the danger - like throwing themselves off the couch to grab an attractive toy on the floor. This type of activity is within the range of normal behavior and shows a healthy desire to explore the world - but requires your vigilant and sustained attention.

Social Risks

As they strive to become more autonomous, toddlers begin to take emotional risks as well as physical ones. After 24 months, many toddlers begin to slow down long enough to focus on their playmates. They attempt the risky endeavor of negotiating some social conflicts by themselves.

After weeks of encouragement from her teacher, Laura, a sensitive 2-year-old, finally tells Jeffrey "That's mine!" when he tries to grab her toy. Instead of immediately turning to her teacher for help, she is taking a risk by trying to assert herself.

Risk Management

Toddlers need an interesting and safe environment where they're free to explore without constantly being stopped from trying new activities. A predictable routine helps busy toddlers channel their enthusiasm into purposeful experiences.

The high energy level of active risk-takers may make caring for them a challenge at times, but they often become especially competent children who enjoy challenges and eagerly seek out new situations.

What You Can Do

A loving caregiver and a safe, inviting, and predictable environment encourage infants and toddlers to explore their world. You can help young children become master risk-takers.

Provide interesting, open-ended materials. Inviting items that have no "wrong way" to use them entice toddlers into trying new activities. Sand, water, paint, and table blocks are perfect for beginning risk-takers.

Offer structured materials that are challenging but not frustrating. A 2-year-old feels competent and independent when she can use pegs, Duplo blocks, or a train by herself.

Be a risk-taker yourself. When you're feeling brave and energetic, try dancing to some unusual music with a group of toddlers - let your enthusiasm be contagious!

3 to 4 by Susan A. Miller, Ed.D.

Hopping off the climber with a flourish, 4-year-old Holden enthusiastically brags to his friends, "I went down the pole fast, all by myself!" A typical four, he displays good physical coordination, enjoys being in control, and feels confident about testing the limits in his quest for independence.

Trying out new feats on the climber is an important activity for 3- and 4-year-olds. Preschoolers learn to master new skills best by physically exploring their environment and taking risks.

Getting Their Toes Wet

Sometimes, 3-year-olds are a little hesitant about trying new things - especially scary ones. Threes frequently prefer to take an observer role if they feel frightened or pressured to act. From this safe vantage point, threes make themselves familiar with the task at hand; after watching others for a little while, they're usually ready to give it a try.

 Not Quite Right

Energetic preschoolers often want to try challenging activities. As with all new experiences, attempts often fall short of their intentions. Many preschoolers are in Erikson's third stage of psychological development, "initiative vs. guilt," and can feel naught or guilty when the task at hand exceeds their abilities.

For example, after being encouraged by her teacher, Andrea tries to throw the ball at the tree. When it misses the narrow target and hits Felicia, Andrea feels frustrated, embarrassed, and a little guilty - as a result, she becomes hesitant to try again or play with her friend.

At Their Own Pace

While spirited preschoolers are feeling autonomous and eager to try new tasks, they're reasonably aware of what they can and cannot do. Balancing the excitement of taking risks and the desire to be safe, threes and fours seem to instinctively know whether they're emotionally or physically ready to tackle something new. It's awfully tempting, but a preschooler who isn't ready will usually hold back from zooming down the slide with hands in the air.

Risky Ideas

Intellectually, threes and fours like to take risks by generating new ideas ("Will the blocks fall over if we cover them with a sheet?") and trying out hypotheses ("Let's see if the water spills out when we add another rock!"). They take risks and invent with open-ended art materials as they expand their creativity, using things in ways they haven't tried before.

What You Can Do

Taking risks is an important part of the learning process for preschoolers. You can help by providing an exciting and safe environment in which children make choices and exercise their own judgment.

Reassure hesitant children. Your physical presence can encourage a child who seems frightened by a task or needs help making a decision.

Encourage and acknowledge children's risk-taking. Commenting on and talking children through new adventures can encourage self-esteem and help them meet the challenges.

Set reasonable limits that allow the children to build trust in their own judgment. Establish rules that ensure a safe and fair environment while still offering children the freedom to explore and experiment.

Introduce new activities that encourage problem-solving and risk-taking. Set up an obstacle course that includes, for example, boxes for children to jump in and out of.

Provide plenty of open-ended materials and time to explore them. Offering a variety of new and familiar materials can help children take risks every day. Accept children's new ideas and encourage them to use the materials in their own imaginative way.

5 to 6 by Ellen Booth Church 

"Look how high I built my block tower today!" a familiar voice calls from the block area. Sure enough, there is daredevil Deidre pushing the envelope again as she tries to make her tower higher and higher. Here's a 5-year-old who likes to take risks.

Not all kindergartners are like Deidre, but most kindergarten teachers have had the pleasure of teaching children like her - risk-takers who learn through experimenting, challenging, and failing as well as succeeding.

The Cutting Edge

Risk-taking is a learning skill - a method children use to explore their own abilities and limitations in the world around them.

For kindergartners, risk-taking isn't just about playing a dangerous sport or courting disaster.

Deidre and other children like her are taking intellectual risks. They are constantly asking themselves questions such as "I wonder what would happen if ...?" and "How many ways can I ...?" Taking risks is an approach to life in which children wonder if they are able to do even more - and invariably respond with a resounding "Yes, I can!"

A Range of Risk-Taking

Developmentally, 5- and 6-year-olds vary a great deal in their level of risk-taking. Some children at this age come into school feeling inquisitive and confident. Others may arrive feeling rather insecure but develop new skills and a willingness to take risks through a series of confidence-building successes during the year. Of all the developmental milestones, risk-taking is among the hardest to pinpoint - and the most dependent on a supportive environment.

Worth the Risk

While many young children delight in testing themselves and the world, this behavior may be discouraged by parents or teachers. Some adults fear children's inquisitive risk-taking, and in an attempt to protect or educate them, constrain children with ideas about the "right way" to do things.

Safety is always an issue, but overprotecting can limit children's experiences and lead to the development of fears. Fortunately, by the time children are 5 or 6, their concept of safety is well defined and they can be trusted to avoid most truly unsafe situations.

What You Can Do

Children need plenty of chance to take risks. You play a crucial role in encouraging children to test themselves.

Create a safe environment for creative risk-taking. Encourage children's innovative behavior and thinking by asking for and considering their suggestions and attempts to solve problems.

Encourage children to try new tasks in a variety of ways. Let them experiment with how to accomplish new things instead of telling them how to do it. Show your support of children who take risks by praising their efforts.

Take risks along with the children. Engage in experiences that are new to you too. When you don't know how to solve a problem, work with children to brainstorm ideas and try different approaches together.

Encourage fearful children to try new ideas in small steps. Set up a confidence-building experience for children before asking them to tackle something very new. For example, suggest that a child who is scared of woodworking try using a saw to cut pieces of cardboard.

Never push children to take a risk they're not comfortable with. Pressuring a child to do something he's scared of simply intensifies his fears.