It’s a parent’s natural instinct to protect their child.
Let’s be honest, once they’re on the move we spend most of our days issuing warnings like, ‘Be careful’ and ‘Don’t do that, you’ll hurt yourself’.
But allowing young children to assess situations for themselves is a crucial part of their physical, social and emotional development. And, despite instinctive feelings to the contrary, it’s beneficial rather than irresponsible to allow your toddler to take risks.
Even the UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE) now recognises that risky play enables children to understand their abilities and prepares them for the realities of the world in which we live.
Just this month, the chair of the HSE blogged on the topic of outdoor play and made the bold statement that we should ‘let our children take a risk’.
In fact, being overprotective is now a form of emotional abuse under the latest safeguarding children policy, which recognises children will never learn about risk if we wrap them in cotton wool.
So try stepping back and letting your toddler jump off the sofa, or slide headfirst down the stairs
So why is it good to let your children take risks, and why should you start when they are toddlers?
By taking a risk and learning from the consequences – whether it’s a bump, scrape, or plain old embarrassment – children understand the consequences of their actions and adjust future decisions accordingly. (Obviously, parents should take a risk-benefit judgment; it’s unlikely the chance of broken bones will outweigh the development benefits.)
Children have a range of physical competences and abilities from an early age, including a growing ability to assess and manage risk. Adults tend to underestimate this.
So try stepping back and letting your toddler jump off the sofa, or slide headfirst down the stairs. You might be surprised at what they do.
I remember the first time my son asked if he could jump from the fifth step on the stairs. My response was: ‘If you think you can.’ He paused, looked, and decided to move down to the fourth step from which he successfully jumped without injury.
‘Children blossom when allowed to take risks,’ says Ben Kingston-Hughes, director of Inspired Children, an organisation which trains parents, teachers and childcare providers how to enable children to take risks.
It’s particularly important for toddlers to be allowed to take risks because you’re building the adult they are going to be
‘You can’t find your limits without pushing them. A toddler isn’t going to kill themselves by jumping off the sofa. They might bang themselves and cry, but it’s part of the learning process. The mental health benefits are huge – it develops the brain and builds resilience, self-esteem and self-reliance,’ he adds.
It’s particularly important for toddlers to be allowed to take risks because you’re building the adult they are going to be. Disabled children especially need to be able to take risks as they are even more likely to be protected by adults.
This advice is echoed by the UK Play Safety Forum, which points out children would never learn to walk or climb the stairs unless they were strongly motivated by challenges that involve a risk of injury.
So, by covering up table corners or catching our toddler when they stumble, we’re actually slowing their development and the opportunity to gain experience from their actions.
Risky play teaches children how to be an adult, how to cope with fear and how to handle themselves in a dangerous situation. It also has a huge impact on self-esteem and confidence as children feel a sense of achievement when they overcome a risky situation, such as climbing up stacked boxes or jumping out of a tree.
The physical benefits are immense, too, as risk-taking enables children to develop their balance, coordination and strength, as well as awareness of their surroundings.
Worrying about a child hurting themselves in the playground makes little sense
As children get older they will actively seek out risk, so it’s also important to allow them to test their limits. If risk isn’t provided in play opportunities they may deliberately seek it out in potentially life-threatening situations, such as playing on building sites or a railway line.
And worrying about a child hurting themselves in the playground makes little sense – out of the two million childhood accidents treated by hospitals in the UK each year, fewer than 2% involve playground equipment. Your child is more likely to be injured playing a team sport such as football or netball – yet these are considered healthy activities.
When allowing – or even encouraging – your child to take risks, the important thing to remember is that you still need to step in when necessary.
‘It is not about what you do; it’s about how children feel about it, and all children are different. It’s the feeling of slight fear combined with happiness and excitement that is key,’ says Kingston-Hughes.
So, next time you find yourself about to say ‘Be careful’ to your little one, pause.
It may be that you need to say nothing at all.