The crew and I arrived at our local park last week to find that we were the second child care group visiting that day. I’ll admit a slight bit of relief, as I usually spend a great deal of our first moments at the park explaining (to every other adult at the park) why there are so many of them and only one of me and no one appears to be a twin. Is it even possible? Well, as the second child care provider on the perimeter, I felt in good company.
Then I noticed the comments from the other provider and realized what different pages we were on, regardless of our shared profession.
No climbing up the slide. Stop putting wood chips on the equipment – they will make everything dirty. Be careful climbing up on those bars, you’re making me nervous. You will fall and get hurt. Watch out! Climb out from the middle of that wheel. If you stand there in the middle, someone will fall on you and it will hurt and you will cry. Stop talking to her [me]. Now is not the time for talking. Now is the time for sliding. Come back over to the slide and play here. You can talk all day long after we get home.
Before moving on, I must share my unwavering belief that most of the time, educators and parents are making the best choices they know to make. Voicing concerns for safety and helping a child get the most out of their day at the park seems like a perfectly reasonable priority. And yet I can’t help but reflect on the consequences of our hyper-vigilance (our “super-supervision”) on our developing children.
We live in an era without accidents. Don’t get me wrong, we still have plenty of accidents, we just don’t view them as accidental anymore. Instead of chalking up a bump or a skinned knee to “kids being kids,” we look for the negligent party that allowed this accident to happen. We sue McDonald’s over the spilled coffee.
And it’s affecting our children.
Young children need lots of practice learning to manage risks when the actual risk of injury is very low. Consider the likely scenario if a child climbs up the slide. Option 1: the child has an opportunity to learn physical coordination and balance by maneuvering a steep incline. Option 2: While working on those physical skills, a child going up and a child going down have an unfortunate encounter. By extension, those two children recognize the importance of being aware of their surroundings.
When children don’t get lots of practice learning to trust their physical bodies, they are actually at greater risk of injury! The more they learn when they are small, the safer they will be in the long run, because they learn to negotiate situations that carry risk.
1. Trust, trust, and trust. Children have a remarkably accurate internal gauge of what they can comfortably manage. The less we interfere with that, the more children will learn to listen to that voice of reason. This means that for children on both ends of the risk-taking spectrum, we support their development. A child who eagerly climbs a wobbly cargo-net to the top of a play structure is ready for that challenge. A child who resists climbing up that same wobbly cargo-net long past his same-aged peers is just not ready for that type of exploration. To force the adventurer to tone it down or to force the cautious explorer to push past their fears communicates one thing: your internal voice cannot be trusted to keep you safe.
2. No More “Be Careful.” My daughter learned to climb one of these fancy pieces of equipment when she was very young. As she was learning to climb, I was learning to bite my tongue. Instead of all the “be carefuls” that came instinctively, I used my physical presence to help assure her safety and provided specific feedback when the situation arose.
You seem stuck and want to keep climbing. To move up a rung, you will need to put your foot and your hand on the next bar up. Do you see where there is a gap in the wall of this structure? Keep your body away from that gap so you don’t fall out. When children climb past my own sense of acceptable risk, I step in like this: You are now so high that I can’t reach you if I need to. I will watch you move back down. I resist the urge to label their adventurous climbing as “unsafe” – after all, it is my own discomfort that compels me to pull the reigns back a little.
3. Do only what you can do on your own. If we put children into situations that would be inaccessible to them on their own, we generate a false sense of confidence and dampen their internal awareness of their limits. You can climb the monkey bars when you can get up and down on your own. You can go on the slide when you feel confident sliding on your own. If I hold a child’s weight while she moves her arms from one monkey bar to the next or sit with a child in my lap while we go down the slide together, they lose contact with what their bodies are naturally capable of doing.
4. Set the stage for success. Our job is to prepare spaces that are safe for exploration. That means eliminating hazards and reducing risks. We do our job of securing heavy furniture, covering electrical outlets, and providing toys that are a safe size for mouthing infants. When we are out on field trips, we try to visit public spaces that provide the most accessible learning areas. By learning in spaces that have few built-in limitations, children learn that they are capable and that persistence will pay off!
5. Respond well to hurts. Accidents happen. As parents and educators, we cringe to see our beloved wee companions in pain, and yet the learning that children do when they fall down and pick themselves up again is critical. The way we assist in those moments of pain can either support the learning process or saddle our children with increasing fear and anxiety. Janet Lansbury wrote a wonderful reflection on this process and includes an amazing example of this practice in action.
In short: be calm, give specific feedback about the injury, and honor the child’s way of managing pain. Don’t hug if a child does not want a hug. Don’t kiss if a child does not want a kiss. Don’t touch the child (if they are physically safe from further injury) until they say it would be helpful.
Gill, T. (2007). No fear: growing up in a risk averse society. London: Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation.
Gramling, M. (2010). Zero risk, zero gain: Tom Sawyer, Won’t you Please Come Home?. Exchange, March/April(192), 50-51.
Guldberg, H. (2009). Reclaiming childhood: freedom and play in an age of fear. Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.
Lindon, J. (2003). Too safe for their own good?: helping children learn about risk and lifeskills. London: National Children’s Bureau.
If you liked this, you might enjoy:
Headed to the Moon! Pulleys and Risk-Taking
Learning from Children: 3 Lessons for a Full Life
Lessons in Learning: Familiarity Breeds Competence