Towards a reconceptualisation of risk-taking in early childhood education

Mandy Cooke

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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This thesis is about risk-taking in early childhood education (ECE). Research identifies that risk-taking is embedded within many aspects of life and is of benefit to both children and adults. Over the past 15 years, risk-taking for children has received increased attention. Reports and research identify the importance of opportunities for children to take risks and early childhood educators are increasingly encouraged to provide opportunities for children’s risk-taking. Yet risk research in ECE has predominantly focussed on children’s risk-taking in physical outdoor play, commonly known as risky play. There has been little attention paid to a broad range of children’s risk-taking or to educators’ risk-taking. While risky play research has contributed to an increasingly positive attitude to risk-taking and supported educators in developing risk-taking practices, it is only one aspect of risk-taking. It is important, therefore, to consider a broad view of risk-taking in ECE.

Presented as a series of journal articles and an exegesis, this thesis explores two research questions: How is risk-taking conceptualised by educators in high quality early ECE services that expressly value children’s risk-taking? and What enables and constrains the risk-taking practices of educators in high quality ECE services that expressly value children’s risk-taking? The research utilised qualitative case study methodology and the theory of practice architectures as a theoretical, methodological and analytical framework. The multi-site case consisted of three Australian ECE services that had received an ‘exceeding’ rating in the Australian quality assessment and rating process and where children’s risk-taking is expressly valued. Fifty-five educators participated from across the three services. Data were collected through observations, interviews and documents, and analysed using thematic analysis and the theory of practice architectures.

The study identified that risk-taking is embedded in many everyday ECE experiences. Findings suggest that for children, risk-taking is more than an outdoor physical play activity. Educators perceived that children may take risks in a range of experiences, such as during social interactions, when attempting something new and when developing independence in self-help tasks. Findings also indicate that educators take risks as a valued aspect of their professional practice. Educators take risks when they, for example, try new teaching methods, share ideas and stand up for what they believe is ‘best’ for children, families and society. Further, the research identified that educators’ risk-taking is carefully considered based on professional judgement and ethical reasoning. Findings reveal various arrangements that can work together to provide the conditions for educators to take risks, which can in turn influence children’s opportunities to take risks.

Insights from the study build on previous research exploring risk-taking for children in ECE and provide critical new understandings about risk-taking for early childhood educators. Key contributions from the study may be used to inspire positive transformation of risk-taking practices and to review arrangements within services and the ECE sector that enable and constrain educators’ risk-taking in professional practice. By reconceptualising risk-taking in ECE, the research highlights the necessity of understanding and support for both children and educators as they navigate risk-taking in education contexts.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Charles Sturt University
  • Francisco, Susanne, Principal Supervisor
  • Wong, Sandie, Co-Supervisor
  • Press, Frances, Co-Supervisor
Award date16 Nov 2020
Place of PublicationAustralia
Publication statusPublished - 2020


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