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Movement Experiences for Children
KIN 366
Instructor: Dr. Shannon S.D. Bredin
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Important Course Pages
Lecture Notes
Course Discussion

Risk-Taking for Children During Motor Development

General Overview: An Introduction

In the field of motor development there is a dynamic relationship between positive and negative behavioral choices. The association between an individual and their behavioural choices is profoundly psychological and has been highlighted among behavioral researchers, economic studies, and physical education perspectives worldwide. Although this field of research is constantly achieving new limits, the idea behind motor behavior expectations in children is a longstanding series of anticipated milestones. Humankind as a species has a sequence of innate behaviors that are engraved into our biological framework since early survival. An apropos aspect of these anticipated motor milestones is the progression of risk taking behavior for children from ages 0 – 12. When children begin to realize that their actions are able to control the events in their surrounding environment, they also understand that each action comes with the nature of risk. Risk taking involves the ability to dare, overcome fear, avoid danger, work through difficult obstacles, and take risks in order to survive.

While individuals express different depths of risk taking behavior for what they perceive to be positive or negative outcomes for an action, risk taking is a universal cognitive choice. In general, risk taking as a concept may be applied to everyday life choices and decision making (Bem, 1971; Byrd, 1974). Children, too, learn to risk, make choices or decisions under uncertainty, although the nature of their risk might have a different value. Young children accommodate risk taking with their play and activities (McGinnis & Berg, 1973; Abroms, 1982). Risk taking behavior has been shown to have a correlational existence with sex, age, child-rearing practices, birth order, culture, socioeconomic strata, religion, and geographical location (Aharoni, 1986). Due to the multidimensional nature of this behavior, the decision making and evaluation of risk is contingent upon a variety of situational events and subject characteristics (Slovic, 1962). Concomitant with the theory of sensory stimulation is the concept of sensation seeking, which assumes that susceptibility to lack of arousal, or boredom, varies among individuals and that they will seek differing amounts of stimulation to avoid it (Rudestam, 1997). For children to evaluate an environmental stimulus and select a responsive behavior, there is a limited ability to process information as well as adults can. Adults can spend their entire lives honing their risk taking behavior to a comfortable range. It would be overly presumptuous to assume children have the same capacity to evaluate risk in comparison with an adult. However, as a primal behavior, it is important for children to evolve a sense of risk-seeking behavior to allow proper levels stimulation and excitement.

Types of Risk

In order to understand the parameters for risk taking, it is important to consider that there are deeply intertwined connections between the psychological aspects of risk taking and the physical aspects of risk taking. It is essential to recognize this relationship because they are codependent.

Psychological Risk Taking

Evidence suggests that experience with a physical activity leads to risk taking (Lasenby-Lessard, 2013). Elementary school children show greater risk taking for high-experience activities (i.e. those they have done often), compared with lower-experience ones that they do infrequently (Horvath & Zuckerman, 1993). Therefore, when children are given opportunities to be exposed to an activity or other related movement experiences at an early age, they are able to establish a sense of confidence associated with that behaviour. Movement confidence has been defined in general terms as an individual’s feeling of adequacy in a movement situation (Griffin, 1982). One may feel more confident when they perceive the environment as nonthreatening and the task as holding no apparent danger (Aharoni, 1986). Drawing on social-cognitive theories, the term “cognitions” commonly occurs in the risk-taking literature and encompasses a broad category of appraisals including the following: perceived vulnerability, danger, and severity (Lasenby-Lessard, 2013). Each of these three cognitive appraisals of injury has been shown to predict elementary school children’s risk-taking decisions (Hillier & Morongiello, 1998). Children who asses the level of danger as low, believe they have a low vulnerability for injury, and believe they will not be seriously injured, take greater risks than children who do not hold these beliefs (Morrongiello, 1997).

Physical Risk Taking

Elements of risk-taking as reflected in children’s motor behavior could be studied in play environments (Aharoni, 1986). Arousal theory states that organisms are stimulus seeking (Ellis, 1973). Three parameters that influence children’s interaction with an apparatus are novelty, complexity and variability. By providing children with increasingly stimulating apparatuses, the children are able to develop the capacity to evaluate the risk and cost of an activity as well as perceive its relative danger. This ability to assess danger is constantly developing and is closely tied to decision making in risk-taking and motor performance. Psychoanalytically oriented theorists regarded risk-taking as counterphobic behavior and expressive of a death wish (Slanger, 1997). However, today risk-taking behavior is considered as physical pursuit of stimulation and excitement.

Benefits of Risk Taking for Children

The development of risk-taking behavior can be beneficial for a variety of reasons. Educators working with young children often advocate the need to encourage and develop “healthy risk taking” (Aharoni, 1986). When children are urged to move beyond their level of comfort, they are pressed to seek a sense of confidence or capability that they may not have known previously. Young children need the experience to develop healthy risk-taking behavior and an environment conducive to the development of the child’s social, cognitive, and physical behavior (Aharoni, 1986).

Physical Benefits

Interest in young children’s risk taking related to motor behavior has recently attracted scholars in motor development (Aharoni, 1986). There is a strong association between risk-taking behavior and its relationship to movement confidence. The main difference between movement confidence and risk-taking behavior is that movement confidence is a construct which hypothesizes the existence of feelings or attitudes (Aharoni, 1986).

Cognitive Benefits

Children receiving early motor development training were described as less afraid of falling, having greater assurance in their movement, and more confident (Aharoni, 1986). With increase age and experience one expects the child to be able to develop more complex skills and to adapt and modify them according to environmental demands (Case, 1980). The visual system appears to play an important role in the development of risk-taking behavior.

Disadvantages of Risk Taking for Children

In most developed nations, unintentional injury is the leading cause of death for children over 1 year of age (World Health Organization, 2005). The economic and personal costs of this health issue impacts individuals, families, and communities world-wide. However, unintentional injuries to children are often preventable which has urged the development of harm-reduction policies. Identifying the factors that impact children’s risk decisions can provide an important foundation for designing intervention programs to reduce childhood injury rates (Lasenby-Lessard, 2013).

Individual Rate Limiters

The development of risk-taking behavior is a continual process that depends on the child’s early experiences. It is possible that the earliest years are crucial to the development of risk-taking behavior. Due to physical, social, emotional or cognitive limitations, impaired children are more likely to experience failure and low confidence in their movement (Aharoni, 1986). Deficits in risk-taking behavior and low movement confidence are more apparent and acute in special children than in normal populations (Griffin, 1982). Interference with sensory and perceptual processing may limit the individual’s decision making and the execution of efficient movement (Kephart, 1971). However, because these children express low levels of motor capacity and a disregard for risk-seeking behavior, healthcare professionals are able to highlight areas that have room for improvement and are thus able to structure a remediation program. Another relevant variable for risk-taking tendencies is sex differences. In a study involving chance risk-taking, Slovic (1966) looked into age and sex differences among 735 boys and 312 girls, aged 9 – 11 years. The results revealed that boys were more daring and girls were more cautious, but girls received a better payoff (Aharoni, 1986). However, Slovic (1966) speculated that the girls’ payoff was due to intellectual maturity over the boys and not as a result of risk-taking.

Environmental Rate Limiters

The environment that children are raised in has many dimensions. It is likely that with increased automation, urbanization, economic pressure, changing family life, and child-rearing styles, the quality of play and childhood experience might not support the development of “healthy risk taking” (Friedberg, 1970). Children who are restricted physically from exploring their environment at home and in school may have their free expression of motor behavior inhibited (Riley, 1980). Becoming over-cautious during a child’s development can often be associated with stifling the tendency for children to explore at home and in a playful environment. This will increase the child’s sense of uncertainty, hesitance and conservatism. Impeding self-expression will inhibit the child to become a better risk taker. Society is highly instrumental when it comes to influencing sex differences with regard to risk-taking behavior (Aharoni, 1986). Recent societal perspectives have pushed for the decrease in sex differences allowing a sense of equality between men and women. Values regarding women’s rights have pushed for a female role model to express a stronger, more courageous female archetype allowing young girls to strive for a more confident identity accompanied by an athletic build. The concept surrounding a more physically confident female can also be expressed as a role model that is risk seeking and independent of physical limitations.

Education for Children

In order for children to be able to successfully develop risk-taking behavior without negative consequences, it is imperative that they be properly exposed to a variety of play. The purpose of this exposure is to avoid the development of a fearful or reluctant attitude towards risk-taking activities that may result in low levels of confidence. The following types of play are suggestions to promote healthy behavioral choices for children from parents and physical activity supervisors as suggested by Frost et al. (2006).

Types of Play to Develop Appropriate Stimulation Seeking Behavior

Physical Play

Physical play, including running, jumping, and climbing, is a vital process for childhood risk assessment and management. Games like tag, king-of-the-hill, and hide & seek provide ample opportunities for a child to engage in risk management and mitigation by presenting children with new physical obstacles and challenges. Exposure to these activities help a child to set acceptable boundaries and thresholds for risk.

Manipulative Play

One of the earliest stages of play, young children manipulate as much of their environment, both physical and social, as they can. This type of play encourages children to push the limits of their interactions, eventually finding boundaries for acceptable experiences. Again, these boundaries help inform a child’s individual risk thresholds.

Symbolic/Dramatic Play

Symbolic and Dramatic play are ways for a child to come to terms with experiences which have or the child suspects might cause pain or fear. Expressing these concerns through play is a therapeutic way for children to expand the limits of their comfort, and in turn their risk thresholds.

Familiarization Play

Familiarization play encourages children to acclimate to new environments and situations in a reassuring and enjoyable ways. This type of play prepares children to more easily adapt to new and sometimes fearful circumstances, which may range from making new friends at a new school to going to the dentist’s office. This type of activity allows children to better manage risk and risk-based scenarios.


It can be said that children’s perception of risk-taking is a perpetually developing and complex stage of cognitive, emotional and physical maturity. There are numerous socioeconomic, societal, individual, familial, psychological, peer-based, cultural and educational factors that contribute to a child’s risk-taking tendencies. Experience and consequences have proven to be significant indicators of the likelihood of an individual to participate in risky behavior. Overall, risk-taking behavior is a positive behavior that should be appropriately fostered throughout childhood.


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