Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Let Them Fall

I have been speaking with several teachers and parents about risk lately.  It is a topic about which people have strong feelings. It has inspired me to dust off my blog and share this information.  

Imagine these scenarios,
A toddler ambles along a pebbled path and falls.
A three year old starts to climb on top of an uneven rock wall.
Two preschoolers have their arms around each other and one wrestles the other to the ground.
Would your gut reaction be to run over, swoop up the toddler and provide comfort?  To tell that three year old, “get down! That is too dangerous, “or to utter the words,”hands to yourself!” to those two preschoolers?

Too often these are the reactions from well meaning parents and caregivers.  As a society we have become a generation that removes risk from the lives of our children.  We have padded playgrounds, low slides, rounded edges, and lists of rules on how NOT to play.  Although it may prevent some scrapes, bumps and bruises, this overprotective parenting is actually detrimental to the healthy development of our children.  Here we will explore how and why it is important to say, “Yes!” to these risky activities. 

Let’s consider that toddler who fell on the path.  Imagine her falling forward on her hands.  Her father is close behind her, but waits.  What he is allowing her is the momentary confusion and the time to figure out for herself that she has just fallen and then to try and pick herself up.  She may feel some discomfort, but is learning that discomfort lessens as she gets up.  She is learning that when something unpleasant happens, she has the ability to try and soothe herself.  She is also experiencing the secure feeling of her parent’s confidence in her abilities.  Conversely, if the child falls and the parent immediately swoop in, she doesn’t get to experience what discomfort feels like and will not have a framework later in life on how to grapple with frustration or distress.  These are the children that end up texting their parents from college when the slightest thing goes wrong instead of attempting to solve the problem themselves.

What about the child climbing the wall?  Should we tell her it is too dangerous and prevent her from even trying?  When children engage in risky play they confront their fears in a more relaxed setting.  As they do this their maturity and skill level advance.  They are left with positive feeling of accomplishment which replaces the former fear.  If children have overprotective parents or are only allowed to play in super safe play areas, they do not get to experience these small triumphs and many end up with anxiety that is inappropriate for their age or skill level.  Outdoor play gives children a sense of adventure, challenges them and gives them opportunities to develop confidence.  If obstacles are always eliminated for them, they do not learn to persist in the face of difficulty.  In a paper published in the journal Early Years, 23(1), Stephenson suggests that there is a fundamental link between a child who is confident tackling physical challenges and one who is confident confronting challenges in other learning contexts.  Researchers agree that a willingness to try things out and take risks, are important characteristics of effective learners. 

Could this child fall or get injured? Yes, but assessing and managing risk is an important life skill.  As children learn to navigate their bodies in the world, they will encounter bumps, bruises and scrapes.  Learning to evaluate and handle the risks involved with these physical actions needs to be developed, practiced and refined.  If we remove all possible unsafe situations, we do not allow our children to develop the ability to weigh the risks against the benefits in order to make informed decisions.  In our preschool, Community Cooperative Nursery School in Rowayton, CT when children are climbing on rocks or balancing on free standing stumps, we remind them to “be ready to fall.”  What does this mean?  Hands free from pockets or obstacles and being self aware of one’s body in space.  We strive to help children be prepared for the adventure rather than being prevented from it.

Removing the rock wall experience from the toddler is similar to the forbiddance of children touching each other in play-what we used to think of as rough housing.   Author Frances Carlson grappled with her decisions to allow her students to engage in rowdy, forceful and physical play, leading her to research and write the book, Big Body Play: Why Boisterous, Vigorous, and Very Physical Play Is Essential to Children’s Development and LearningIn this type of play, Carlson asserts that children are not only honing their physical skills but “during such play, children also use increasingly sophisticated communication skills—both verbal and nonverbal—and social skills. It is also one of the best ways for children (especially boys) to develop empathy and self-regulation. And creativity and thinking skills are enhanced as children determine and solve problems as they arise in the course of this active play.” Children engaged in this type of play are learning to read non-verbal signals and how to monitor their actions and reactions based on the others in the group.  If the opportunities to learn these social cues are removed by the rule of “keep your hands to yourself”, they may not be developed appropriately.  At our school we often check in with children playing this way, “do you want his hands around you like that?”  We also actively teach self protection strategies such as saying “time out” if a break is needed, or how to walk away when feeling frustrated.

Why are parents overprotective?
Karen Karbo in the article featured in Redbook, Why Being Less Protective is Better for Your Kids, explains that we suffer when our children do.  “We remember our own skinned knees and bruised heart and want to spare our children the same pain.”  Women are predisposed to being very nurturing and protective. Another part of the issue, “may be an outgrowth of millennial moms' can-do proactivity: Doing "everything" has come to include protecting our children from life's realities.”

There is pressure on fathers, too, who may be more open to riskier play, to become more protective as well.  In our culture protecting children from discomfort and the pain of disappointment has become associated with effective parenting.  As fathers take a more active role in daily childrearing, they have an intense need to prove they can be successful.  When a child gets hurt a parent, dad or mom, often feels as sense of failure as a parent. 

Removing risk is also related to limited time that families seem to have for outdoor play or for children navigating new circumstances unassisted.  Today we are in a hurry.  It is easier and faster to tell a child to put a stick down than to teach her how to hold it safely.  It removes the risk of a cut or bump that will need attention if we eliminate rough housing.  In our race to become better parents we are removing opportunities for essential life skills that will create the successful, independent adults we hope to raise. 
What can parents do?

Give our children the gift of time and opportunity to take risks and explore.

Be near and available for help, but do not insist on it.

Wait.  If it is not a critical life threatening situation, wait and see how your child handles himself.  Follow the mantra set by Tom Mullarky, chief executive of the Royal Society for the 
Prevention of Accidents, “keep children as safe as necessary, not as safe as possible.”

Reflect with your child on what he is about to do and then afterwards.  Narrate the situation for those who are too young to verbalize it.  “I saw that you tried to climb on that rock and it was too steep, so you walked around until you found a way you could climb up by yourself.”  “That is a pretty steep slope, how are you going to keep yourself safe?”

Keep your own fears and phobias at bay.  I am terrified of heights, I probably didn’t climb enough trees as a child, but my own children love to climb, and high.  I have a constant inner battle with myself to not let my fears inhibit their play. 

Let them see you fall.  Try something new in front of your children; ski, climb, skate, do the monkey bars….if you fall, get up and try again. 
And be there with a hug or a band-aid or an ice pack, knowing you are fostering a resilient, confident, risk-taker powerful enough to tackle the challenges of daily living. 


  1. This blog is interesting Dana. One of the great things about being a child is that everything you do is new. New experiences, new life skills and new ways of thinking. On their way, our children learn through cause and effect and sometimes they hurt themselves. The most important thing is our children are able to experience life and build resilience in order to grow and learn. Getting them outside is the key. Great blog and a great topic.

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