EARLY CHILDHOOD TODAY: How do children build confidence when they are playing outdoors?

ERIC STRICKLAND: I think confidence grows as a matter of meeting with success in the different tasks children undertake. You'll see children tentatively try something, going through stages in which they observe other children and then trying an activity themselves. Confidence also comes from moving through attempts and first failures and having the tenacity to stay with something until they've mastered it, or at least mastered it at a developmentally appropriate level.

ECT: How can a teacher support a child who doesn't display tenacity?

STRICKLAND: That's a real challenge. I think it's one of the attributes we don't develop well in children. Almost everything in our society suggests that if you don't get something right away, it's not worth having, so just move on. I think we should teach tenacity, like confidence, in small steps. We need to help children find small ways to succeed. For example, a four- or five-year-old child is trying to use an overhead ladder. One way not to help him is to put him on the ladder and say, "Okay, move forward." Instead, the thing to do is show him, and talk to him about, what other children are doing on the ladder. Help him pay attention to their motor movements. We don't do a good job of helping children study and think about motor movements. For instance, you might say, "Look at Colleen on the ladder. She's turning her body and reaching out with her left hand while she holds on with her right. Now look how she's swinging her body." That's the first step: helping children understand what's happening and recognize how other children are doing the activity successfully.

The second step is to support and encourage children's small steps. So as a child gets on the bar and hangs, we don't push her to swing forward. Instead, we encourage her to see how long she can hang and help her think about what she is doing by saying, "That's great! If you can hang this long, it will be easy to go all the way across. The time you've spent hanging is about the same amount of time it takes to go all the way across." Then, as she starts to move across, we give both verbal and physical encouragement. We certainly shouldn't wait until a child goes all the way across the ladder before we recognize she's making progress. And we can't get so caught up in "doing it right" that we withhold praise and encouragement while a child is in the process of learning.

It's also important to remember that we're talking about situations in which children really want to try something; they've already expressed an interest, so we're building on personal motivation. Adults have to be very careful because it's easy to get into a position of trying to have a child do something he's not ready for. We are not trying to teach children skills they are not ready to attempt.

ECT: How does risk taking relate to confidence building?

STRICKLAND: Risk taking is an important part of developing both self-esteem and self-confidence. In fact, I think risk taking grows out of confidence. To a certain extent, children who tend to be more confident take more risks. They also tend to be better at assessing risks - when something looks a little scary or intimidating - so they're better able to determine whether or not they might be successful. Confident children tend to be more willing to try those things that look marginal.

When we assess a risk as being something that we can handle and move forward to attempt it, we're expressing confidence in our own abilities. When we're successful, we enhance or bolster our confidence in those abilities. Often when younger children go to public playgrounds, they don't find a suitable level of risk because most playgrounds have more risk than might be appropriate, particularly for toddlers. So you may see adults placing children on equipment that may go beyond the risk a child wants to take. There are also times when the equipment doesn't offer enough risk. And we find, in those situations, children engage in inappropriate activity to get to a suitable level of risk. For instance, if the climbing equipment doesn't offer enough of a challenge, children figure out how to get on the roofs of the structures or climb up swings and walk on the crossbars - an acknowledgment of the fact that children are driven to take risks.

I think it's very important to distinguish between a risk and a hazard. Opportunities to take risks are appropriate for playgrounds, and, in fact, playground equipment needs to offer a variety of levels of risk. Hazards, however, are conditions that don't allow children to properly assess the potential for injury. For example, if a child is walking on a balance beam, he can look at the beam and decide pretty quickly whether or not he could fall off and get hurt. But he couldn't tell, for example, if hardware had come loose and the structure was in imminent danger of collapse. That would be a hazard, whereas assessing the motor skills required to do a particular activity would involve assessing the risk and then deciding whether to take it or not.

ECT: How do you think gender affects children's inherent confidence and tenacity?

STRICKLAND: My experience tells me that risk taking may be somewhat related to gender, but I believe it's more related to each individual's level of confidence in his or her own ability. That's not to say that this will hold true across the board with every age group. But, for example, I've just come from watching my five-year-old's nastics class. Looking at the various movements they were trying, there wasn't really much difference in what the girls were willing to attempt and what the boys were trying. In this case, it also reflects the personal and individual differences of this specific group of children, who are all from homes that are probably encouraging and supportive. Children tend to then respond with a level of confidence in themselves.

ECT: Do you think teachers tend to expect boys to do more power-related kinds of physical play and behaviors than girls?

STRICKLAND: Yes. I think we tend to think that boys are more physical or more physically able and more willing to engage in risky behavior. But I don't really think that's supported across a broad spectrum. On an individual basis, I think you could find children who would fit into those stereotypes. However, I think children are predispositioned to think they're different and require something different very early in life.

It's so important to examine how we respond to children early on. For instance, when a baby boy takes a tumble, we say, "Whoops, you fell down. Okay, hop up, you're okay." But when a baby girl takes a tumble, we run over and scoop her up and make sure she's all right. I'm not saying that we should try to obliterate all gender differences. I do think there are areas where genders really differ, but not necessarily here. There is a lot of evidence to suggest that we are predisposing girls to be social and boys to be active. We need to pay close attention to that.

Dr. Eric Strickland has been a Head Start teacher and director, head teacher at the Auburn University at Montgomery (Alabama) Child Development Center, and associate professor of Elementary and Early Childhood Education at the University of Texas at Arlington. He is now the founder and president of Grounds for Play, a design/build firm that specializes in outdoor play spaces.