Tag Archives: Learning

Letting Your Child Take Risks

merryOn the one hand, it’s a parent’s job to protect a child from harm. On the other hand, children need to independently explore their world in order to understand their world. If we over-protect, we limit their ability to learn, we may teach them to be timid and fearful, and we may actually put them at greater risk. “If we round every corner, and eliminate every pokey bit, then the first time that kids come in contact with anything not made of round plastic, they’ll hurt themselves.”(Ted Talk by Gever Tulley)

If we allow them to take small, manageable risks with us there to supervise and coach them through, they learn more about life, they tend to feel bold and empowered, and they’ll have an internal sense of when a situation carries a potential risk and will know they need to be more cautious to stay safe.

Differentiating level of risk

When deciding about safety issues, what needs to be child-proofed, and what boundaries to set, think about the level of possible risk involved.

If the situation could turn from safe to life-threatening in one unsupervised moment (what I call “red light” issues), then you need to either remove the hazards (e.g. don’t leave poisonous items or guns out), block them off (e.g. fences around swimming pools, window locks that prevent the second-story window from opening all the way) or closely supervise the child at all times (e.g. if your child is playing with a ball in a park near a busy road). Rules about these sorts of situations should be clearly explained, non-negotiable and followed every time.

If the situation could cause a significant injury, that’s what I call an orange light. When a child is around these situations (like a campfire or the sharp knives in the kitchen), you model safe behavior for the child, you talk to them about the need for caution, and when the time is right, you teach them how to interact with those things safely. You do not leave your child unsupervised.

If a situation has some risk, but really the worst that can happen is minor damage to person (bump or bruise) or property (mess that needs to be cleaned up or non-valuable item broken), then consider whether this situation needs to be child-proofed or left as a low-risk learning experience.

Darel Hammond, CEO of KaBOOM! says “There’s a difference between an accident and an injury. Accidents happen – kids fall and skin their knees… And as tragic as it is in that moment, it’s through that experience that they’re learning perseverance, they’re learning determination. They dust themselves off and go try something again and they can overcome it.”

Or, as Tom Mullarkey, Chief Executive, Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents said “We must try to make life as safe as necessary. Not as safe as possible.”

Learn more about levels of safety / risk and how to teach safety skills to kids here.

Kid’s Favorite Risky Behaviors

No matter what we do to safety-proof, “Kids are always going to figure out how to do the most dangerous thing they can.” (Gever Tulley) Ellen Sandseter has developed these categories of risky play that seem to especially appeal to kids in play.

  • Great heights: Climbing trees, furniture, anything else to get that “king of the mountain” thrill.
  • Rapid speeds: Swings, merry-go-rounds, slides, bikes, roller coasters. Anything fast.
  • Dangerous tools and dangerous elements: Fire, hammers, knives, guns, power tools, chemicals.
  • Rough and tumble: Wrestling, play-fighting, chasing, pushing, pinching.
  • Disappearing / getting lost: Games like peek-a-boo, then hide and seek fulfill some of this desire, but there’s also little ones trying to wander outside their boundaries, older kids staying out past curfew.

For each, the child has a sense of possible risk, and feeling just barely in control, but managing to stay in control through that challenge. This gives a thrill, and also a sense of power and competence.

Children with a more passive temperament want these risks, but if they don’t have them, they may give up. For example, if the “safe” playgrounds in the neighborhood no longer offer a thrill to an eight year old, she may just choose to stay inside and play video games for a vicarious thrill. (Some people have argued that part of the American obesity epidemic in kids is due to their parents keeping them inside where it’s safe, and them not being physically challenged when they do leave the house.)

But other kids can’t resist their inner thrill seeker. If they don’t have approved opportunities in their environment that “push these buttons” then they will find a way to make them happen. Some of their inventions may be much riskier than we would wish. (A friend told a story from his teens of how he and his friends had filled a trash bag with some flammable gas, then lit it on fire. His line was “The first time we did it, it blew all the windows out of the garage.” The women who heard this story all said incredulously “the first time?? That means you did it more than once??” The men in the group all said “Well, yeah – the windows were already gone – nothing left to damage by doing it again.”)  You may want to start thinking now about how to offer options for positive risk-taking for your child…

As a parent of a young one, think about each of these categories of risks that kids seek, and consider whether you are offering your child access to these thrills in a safe, controlled environment where you can coach them as needed to learn new skills for how to do it well. Have you let your child climb to a “great height” this week – the big slide at the playground? A good climbing tree? A steep hill on a trail? Have they experienced great speeds – riding in a bike trailer? Being pushed high on a swing? Spinning in an office chair? “Dangerous tools” at this age is about using tools they see mommy or daddy using – a metal fork instead of a soft plastic spoon? A table knife to cut a banana with? The TV remote? For rough-and-tumble, toddlers love wrestling, or holding hands between parents and being swung up high in the air, or chase games. For “getting lost”, nothing beats hide and seek. They may also like getting a long distance away from you – when you’re outdoors in a place where it’s safe to do so, give them some space.

Benefits of Risky Play

It’s easy to look at risky play and think of it as “stupid.” Why do children do risky things, even when they “know better”? (One of my favorite lines was from a group of middle school boys after an accident led to a broken arm for one: the principal asked them why they did something – “didn’t you realize someone could get hurt??” They shuffled their feet a little, looked at the wall, and eventually said “well, yeah, of course. We just didn’t think anyone would get hurt that badly.”)

There’s clearly an evolutionary benefit to play, since young animals of every species learn by playing, and often by playing in rough and tumble ways that can lead to injury. What are the benefits?

  • Learning skills they’ll need as an adult: At some point, kids need to learn to use dangerous tools.
  • Persistence / overcoming challenges: “Risk teaches children how to fail and try again, test their limits and boundaries, become resilient and acquire coping skills” (Hammond)
  • Responsibility: “Childhood is the time when children take more responsibility for themselves, for their safety and for their actions. We actually do children a dis-service by trying to eliminate risk from their lives as they grow up. It’s a good thing for children to be exposed to the possibility that things might go wrong because that’s how they learn to cope with challenges.” Tom Gill, author of No Fear.
  • Emotion regulation: It helps children “regulate fear and anger… youngsters dose themselves with manageable quantities of fear and practice keeping their head while experiencing fear. In rough and tumble play, they may experience anger, but to continue the fun, they must overcome it.” (Gray)

Questions to Ask Yourself

If you have young children at home, you are, of course, going to safety-proof all the potentially life-threatening risks. You will, or course, teach your child safety skills that help reduce injuries.

But can you also view risk as a learning opportunity? Can you sit back and let your child experience a few bumps and bruises as they explore their world? Can you tolerate some messiness in your life, and occasional damage to your possessions if it allows your child to discover new ideas and new skills?


photo credit: xiaming via photopin cc

Recommended for more info:

Read: Risky Play – Why Children Love It and Need It, Peter Gray in Psychology Today. www.psychologytoday.com/blog/freedom-learn/201404/risky-play-why-children-love-it-and-need-it

Read: The Overprotected Kid by Hanna Rosin. The Atlantic, March 2014.
(It’s a long article. If you’d prefer to listen to an interview with the author that covers the same ground, go to www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/parents-let-kids-take-risks/)

Read: Can a Playground be too safe? By John Tierney. www.nytimes.com/2011/07/19/science/19tierney.html

Watch: The Benefits of Risk in Children’s Play www.youtube.com/watch?v=XRn1a82tdHM and
Ted Talk by Gever Tulley: 5 Dangerous Things You should Let Your Kids Do. www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pn_awAPYlGc

Listen to: The Land by Erin Davis: www.prx.org/pieces/100288-of-kith-and-kids#description

On Facebook, like: Play Free Movie – they post lots of great links on these topics!

Three States of Matter

My son is continuing to explore the ideas of solids, liquids, and gases. (See previous post.)

Some of the lessons from our impromptu experiment have sunk in, and he’s also learning new stuff. When I pour his milk, he says “look, it’s a liquid.” When we were steaming veggies, he pointed at the steam, and said “look it’s a gas.” He wanted to set up 3 categories, so we gave him a bowl of ice for solids, a water bottle for liquids, and bubble wrap for gas. We explained there was gas trapped inside the plastic bubbles, and we had a lot of fun popping the bubbles and listening to the gas escape.

Later we came back and he was upset that his solid water was gone and there was liquid water in the bowl instead. We talked about how it was the same water, it had just changed from solid to liquid as it got warm.

I never imagined I’d be covering these topics with my three year old. How did we get here? By following his interest.

When he was two, he wanted to play trains and talk trains all day. So, we learned the names of all the types of train cars, and we learned the names of all of Thomas’ friends. Now, he’s into the planets and science, and I can tell you more facts about the solar system than I’ve ever known before.

With my oldest daughter, we followed her down the path of stories – books, plays, movies, writing – I’ve always loved musical theater, but after 20 years of engaging with her about theater, I know much more about it, and that’s only deepened my appreciation. My middle child has loved wilderness survival, soccer, theater, art, fashion design, hair color, and now vinyl LP’s from the 50s. I’ve followed her down all these paths, learning about each of these things. I love the joy of connecting over something they’re passionate, and love the opportunity to learn alongside them, and appreciate things I may or may not have ever explored on my own. (Yeah, types of train cars…. I never would have learned that on my own!)

A side benefit: I know kids learn more when they’re happy, and learn basic skills (like language) more quickly when we use that basic skill to explore something that’s important to them.

When I Play I am Learning (What your Child is Learning when s/he is “just playing”)

When I play with blocks, I am learning…

  • Sizes and shapes, and how to create and repeat patterns: essential math skills
  • Spatial awareness, stacking and balancing: the basics of physics
  • Problem solving and logical consequences

When I play with water (and other items in the sensory table), I am learning…

  • Eye-hand coordination as I learn to pour, fill, scoop
  • To use tools to accomplish a task – funnels, cups, scoops
  • Concepts of empty and full, volume and weight, relevant to mathematics
  • Properties of solids and liquids in motion, that some things sink and some things float (science!)

When I play with dolls or stuffed animals, I am learning…

  • To use my imagination
  • To treat others with tender, loving care
  • To imitate the parenting behaviors I see in my life

When I play with puzzles, shape sorters, and stacking cups, I am learning…

  • About the relationships of parts to the whole… a basic math concept
  • Concepts of shape, relative sizes (big, bigger, smaller), and color
  • Eye-hand coordination, small motor skills, problem solving
  • Vocabulary related to the subject of the puzzle

When I look at books, and when you read them to me, I am learning…

  • That learning to read is important and enjoyable
  • That letters on a page represent words – talk written down
  • To interpret pictures to represent ideas
  • To follow the development of thoughts and ideas in the plot of a story

When I play outdoors and in the big motor play area, I am learning…

  • Physical strength, coordination and balance
  • To jump, slide, run, swing, roll, and climb
  • To take some risks and to learn when to be cautious
  • To watch out for other people before moving, to move around others carefully

When I play in the kitchen area with the food and the dolls, I am learning…

  • To use my imagination, to try on different adult roles
  • To cooperate with others when involved in some dramatic play
  • To express myself in sentences
  • To solve problems, especially socially, through negotiation with friends
  • To improvise and use things in a symbolic way to represent something else…abstract thinking.

When I play with cars and trains, I am learning…

  • To see myself from a different perspective, that of a giant
  • How wheeled vehicles move through the world and what happens when they crash
  • How things need to be pushed up hills, but going downhill, they go fast on their own (physics!)

When I play with Playdough, I am learning…

  • To express feelings, squeezing and pounding
  • When I cut out a shape with a cookie cutter, I am learning about negative & positive space, seeing something against its background (helps with reading)
  • That the amount of a substance remains the same, even when the shape changes.

When I sort things, I am learning…

  • To notice details and similarities and differences in objects; concepts of color, size and shape
  • To form categories, essential concepts for reading and mathematics
  • Logical reasoning

When I paint, scribble, or draw, I am learning…

  • To develop my imagination and creativity
  • To hold a paintbrush or pencil
  • The names of colors and how to make new colors
  • To distinguish shapes, and purposely create shapes
  • To express my feelings and ideas, and that my ideas have value
  • Concepts of symmetry, balance and design

When I choose to have a snack, I am learning…

  • To choose and try new foods
  • How to sit at a table with others for snack
  • How to drink from a cup (and logical consequence – when you make a mistake, you get wet!)

When I play independently when my parent has left the room for parent education, I learn…

  • That my parent can leave for a while to tend to his/her own needs, but s/he is still available if needed, and s/he always comes back
  • That I can ask other adults for help, and that I need to listen to other adults’ guidance
  • Independence and Self-Confidence

When I participate in circle time activities, I am learning…

  • The names of others in the group: an essential skill for building relationships
  • To listen, sit still and understand spoken language: important for school readiness
  • To wait when others are talking, To cooperate and be considerate of the needs of others
  • New vocabulary connected with the topic of discussion
  • To remember the words of songs and poems: helps to build memory skills

Toddler’s brains are developing at an incredibly fast rate. They are born with a lifetime supply of neurons (brain cells), but they only develop synaptic connections (the essential wiring that connects those neurons and helps our brains function quickly and effectively) through hands-on experience with the world. Through play! Learn more about brain development here.

Original concept (and some of the text) for this article is from http://88thservices.com/pdf/learning.pdf, by Karen Miller. Additional concepts by Janelle Durham

Also check out this resource which talks specifically about what math skills your toddler is learning while they play: for example “dumping a bucket of blocks and putting all the blue ones into a pile” ties to “Infants and toddlers look for exact matches when classifying objects… Classification will one day be used for the mathematical content areas of measurement, patterning/algebra, and geometry/spatial sense.”