Don’t wrap my child in bubble-wrap! How can we help children learn to manage risk?

Are we too overprotective of our children?

‘Don’t wrap my child in bubble-wrap! How can we help children learn to manage risk?’ is a guest post by Adam Smart from SmartKidz Play and Learn Ltd. Smartkidz Play and Learn run breakfast, after school and holiday clubs in four settings in Cambridgeshire. They use a combination of playwork and forest school approach and firmly believe in providing the opportunity for child led play and the opportunity for children to learn how to manage risk.

Are we stopping children from learning to risk assess by being overprotective?

If you could write down a list of the ten most frequent things you say to your child, what would they be? Maybe: Stop! Be careful! Don’t do that, you will hurt yourself! Get down from there, you will fall Or: Come and stand by me. No higher than that. Don’t touch that it’s hot. But are these commands helpful to any child?

How does a child learn about risk?

One morning I was sitting on the sofa holding a cup of tea, my 18-month-old child toddled over to me and looked at my cup. My response was, “Ooh don’t touch that it’s hot, ouch, ouch!” His reaction and facial expression pretty much summed up how useless this comment was and how utterly confusing. He had spent 18 months being told that something is hot and has never experienced what “hot” means. My child has been taught, ‘something is hot, when I am told it is hot’. However, when he does approach something hot my advice is useless. The feeling of something getting hot is new so he is more likely to touch it.

Changing your way of thinking

From that day I changed my way of dealing with risky situations with my children and within my playwork/forest school practice. The next time I sat with a cup of tea and my 18-month-old came toddling over, I surprised him by showing him the cup. After a while he touched the cup and quickly took his hand away. He then tried again and took his hand away again. I felt comfortable doing this because it was warm but not hot. This time instead of saying “Ooh don’t touch that it’s hot, ouch, ouch,” I asked the question, “Do you think the cup is hot?” At 18 months I changed from telling my child they were at risk to asking them if they thought they were at risk. Allowing him to question it himself instead of being told, “This is dangerous don’t go near it.” I didn’t expect an answer, but I had begun to put him in control of making his own judgement.

The ups and the downs of tree climbing

One of my favourite questions, when interviewing new employees at Smartkidz, is, “If, while supervising outside, you turn around to see a child 4 metres up a tree, what would you do?” Every interviewee has the same look of dread and fear in their face and usually tells me, “I would ask them to come down.” As a forest school practitioner and playworker one of the first questions I am asked is, “How high do you allow children to go up a tree?” I have heard a few different ideas for this myself, from putting a ribbon around the tree where they must stop, to instructing children to only climb to their own height. My answer is, “As high as they feel they can go.”

Children are humans

Children are humans and, believe it or not, they don’t want to die or break, so when a child climbs a tree, it is highly unlikely they will keep climbing until they reach the top and fall off. However, there are times that children do go too high and due to my own experience, I have learnt how high is too high and if a child is starting to become unsafe. This is how I speak to a keen climber, “How do you feel up there right now?” At times, when in the zone, children will be excited, blood pumping and adrenaline going crazy. Allowing them to stop and think about the situation they are in is enough to make them think; actually, I’m not feeling safe. It’s amazing how many children say, “I’m really high, I’m not going higher.” Without me needing to say, “Stop, come down!”

What are the alternatives?

If it doesn’t work, we discuss the position they are in. For example: “You have done an amazing job to get so high up in the tree. Is the trunk getting thinner? Are the branches getting smaller? Is it getting windy?” Again, allowing the children to think about these things gives them a chance to think for themselves. I may finish with something like: “What do you think you should do now?” I can probably count on one hand the times I have had to say, “Do not go any higher please!” after going through this dialogue with a child.

Risk is around us every day

Risk is around us every day. No matter how much we try to keep our children safe from harm, they will find themselves in positions where they must decide what the safest action is to take.

Developing a child’s ability to risk assess

Allowing your children to take part in risk appropriate activities and changing your language from commands to questions will help your child to develop their own ability to risk assess. Finally, I want to make it clear, I make mistakes in this every day. I hit myself when I hear myself saying, “Ooh be careful” or, “Don’t do that.” But over time it is getting less frequent. When my son is climbing over rocks (as shown in the picture) I am smiling and encouraging on the outside and screaming with fear on the inside.

What is age-appropriate risk?

I have two children, my first child never put anything in his mouth until he was 2 when he decided to lick a slug. Why? Who knows! Did he do it again? No! He is a worrier and has high anxiety levels. We never needed stair gates, because he never wanted to climb stairs. My second child is more on the feral side, she is often found dining out on mud and worms and will not think twice about dancing on the top of a set of stairs. My first child, I allowed to use a knife to whittle at 3, however, my second child may take a little bit longer. It could be a while until I feel she is ready to handle any sharp implements, bearing in mind her history. I have worked with four-year olds that I could trust to light a fire and I have worked with 10-year olds who still need to be shown how to even approach a fire safely. I have seen one-year old children using toys that say 5+ on them and I have seen 8-year-old children putting parts of games in their mouth that are for 5+.

Decisions on risk vary per individual child – there is no such thing as age-appropriate risk!

So, what is age-appropriate risk? There is no such thing! Decisions around risk should be decided on the individual child’s mental and physical development. Where one child may lack development in one area they may be highly developed in others. You know what your child is capable of and what an appropriate level of risk is for them.

A personal challenge

First, allow you child to take part in some appropriate risk activities for their developmental stage. (i.e. not the same as age-appropriate risk!) Try, for one week to ask questions around risk instead of telling them. Allowing them to experience risk will take your child out of their comfort zone. Especially if this is not something they have done before. Make sure these experiences and activities are achievable for both you and your child. For some it may be something as simple as allowing them to use sharp scissors, jumping on the bed, lifting heavier objects then usual or making tall towers that go higher then their head. For others it may be allowing them to decide how high they go up a tree, using a knife to whittle wood or letting them play with hammers, nails and wood.

Stepping outside your comfort zone

This will also put you outside your comfort zone and it is important to not show fear and speak to the child calmly. If you panic, they panic and then accidents happen. I always look at this as the air hostess approach, if the air hostesses look calm, I am calm. Do you think we are too overprotective of our children? is there such a thing as age-appropriate risk? Please share your experiences in the comments box below, by joining the discussion on our Facebook, Twitter and Instagram pages or by contacting us via our contact form. Thanks to Tom Russell from Smartkidz Play and Learn for the guest post. You can find out more about Smartkidz by visiting their website, Facebook, Twitter or Instagram pages.

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