Susannah Robbins explores the importance for children to learn from their mistakes and develop resilience.

[New City Magazine – October 2020, page 20-21]

‘Experience is simply the name we give our mistakes.’

I love this quote from Oscar Wilde. I often tell my children that when we make mistakes it is proof that we have dared to try. But making mistakes is hard for small children, they have so much to learn all of the time that they often make mistakes and this can become quite wearisome. How can we build their resilience so that they are able to reframe obstacles as opportunities, and mistakes as experience? Yes, you guessed it – through play!

Allowing our children to build their resilience is also an exercise of trust for us parents, we need to take a giant step back, put our hands firmly in our pockets and allow our children to take risks. This advice isn’t for babies or toddlers, but much more for pre-schoolers and up. It’s also important to say that this article isn’t about discouraging our children to be upset by mistakes, but more to encourage them not to give up, to persevere and to try again.

Providing opportunities for children to learn from their mistakes

In order for our children to become more independent and resilient, they need to have the opportunities to take chances, to make mistakes and to learn from them. They need to develop the skills to judge a situation and decide for themselves (we can’t do this on their behalf) if their desired outcome is achievable, and if so, how to reach it. As parents, we are often very risk-adverse. We cherish our children and want no harm to come to them. But by doing this are we limiting them? Are we holding them back by not allowing them to flex their risk-taking muscles? But how can we safely coach our children into making good, wise decisions?

Granny loves flowers!

Let’s start with some really simple ideas, where mistakes are fairly inconsequential – purely to desensitise our children to the act of getting it wrong. As with any behaviour or trait that we want our children to foster, we need to model it. As adults we are so good at making a mistake and then seamlessly problem solving and amending our actions so that others are none-the-wiser. We need to break this process down for our children, otherwise to them we are people who never make mistakes, that only they are at fault, and obviously this is a) not true and b) not at all helpful in terms of life skills and expectations, or for the child’s wellbeing and sense of self-worth. Next time you make a tiny mistake, I urge you to talk your way through the process with your child, for example ‘Oh no! I’ve smudged my writing in Granny’s birthday card! What a shame! Now it looks messy and I wanted it to be my best handwriting… I am going to stop writing and take a deep breath… I know! I can turn the smudge into a picture of a flower – Granny loves flowers! My smudge didn’t ruin the card after all!’

Activities to develop resilience

Den building – the quintessential childhood activity, is another really simple play activity. Children love to build dens. The actual construction of them leaves them feeling powerful, to see what they have created with their own hands! But they collapse easily… This can lead to huge frustration, tears and tantrums too. Using sticks and fallen branches to prop against each other to make a den, children need to work out which types of sticks work best, how to position them for maximum structural effect and how to use smaller twigs to fill gaps and create shade and shelter. This will need team work to begin with, but once the structural skeleton is in place the child can be encouraged to continue independently. Don’t be tempted to rush in and rescue the child if they are struggling, allow them some time to work through their options and to see what works. Of course, support them if they do request help after being encouraged to try again: don’t offer assistance but don’t refuse it either. Dens can also be made using bedsheets, clothes pegs and cushions – use what you have, and model resourcefulness for your child.

Make a homemade kite! My eldest son (aged 6) did this at school recently and the kite he made was brilliant. However, he assures me that it was not brilliant to begin with. The resilience in this activity comes from trial and error. He needed to assess whether his materials would work well – if not why not and what did he need to do to improve his kite? The finished kite was simply made using: a bag for life, some sticks, sticky tape and string. The first bag that he used was too flimsy, the first sticks he found were too short, he got in a tangle with the sticky tape and the string, but step by step, he realised something needed improving. He assessed what it was and he went about fixing it. No joke, his kite is fantastic!

For younger children who are perhaps not so dextrous or tenacious, baking is a good activity for building resilience via patience. Especially bread making. It take ages but the reward of fresh bread straight out of the oven is bountiful! We have made many loaves during lockdown, and I particularly enjoy making it with the boys as, unlike pastry for example, you cannot damage bread dough. This makes it a winner for a family bake.

Keep your hands in your pockets!

For slightly older children, tree climbing, making judgement calls about the strength of a branch, or the distance from one branch to another is one way of learning to calculate risks, through play. This will take proper focus and stamina, for both you and the child! Allow them to make mistakes that won’t harm them, encourage them when they claim to be stuck, keep your hands in your pockets if need be! Step back, but keep your eyes open and step in when necessary.

The path to resilience is long, and hard and so critical for adults too! Good luck to all who embark upon it, I hope that you enjoy some glorious moments along the journey.

Photo: © courtesy of Susannah Robbins

See also:

[See the article in full PDF edition on pages 20-21]

Read the 1st part of this series: Play theory

Read the 2nd part of this series: Learning through play

Read the 3rd part of this series: Baby play

Read the 4th part of this series: Purposeful praise

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