Risk-Taking in a World of “Watch out!” and “Be Careful!”

“Stop!” “Be careful!” “Don’t do that!” “Watch out!”

Imagine yourself test driving a brand new Porsche Carrera convertible (MSRP $102,930.00) onto a busy I95 while a very nervous passenger reminds you to “be careful” or “watch out”. Did that reminder help your confidence or undermine it? Did it improve your skill, your focus and your problem solving ability or did it raise doubts about whether this was really a good idea after all? Nervousness and helicoptering distracts children and grown-ups alike from evaluating situations and acquiring personal mastery.

Children are especially vulnerable to emotional messages about whether or not the world is safe. The Visual Cliff research suggests that crawling babies make choices based on the risk or encouragement shown on their mother’s faces. At the same time, babies do not learn depth perception without crawling and climbing over uneven heights. Young children need to experience the world with their bodies – stretching, reaching, and yes even falling – in order for brain and body to integrate into one masterful whole. And, they need to be encouraged to do so by loving adults.

When grown-ups rescue toddlers and preschoolers while climbing, children have false perceptions of the physical world – like the cartoon road runner cruising straight off a cliff (“ruh roh”). They miss an opportunity to develop the brain-body connection that helps them manage their body in a precarious position and they may falsely believe a rescuer will always be there to catch them. Parents must find the balance of supervision and skill building without overdoing and without over-managing.

Here’s how:

1. Give children lots of physical play.
2. Encourage self-awareness, self-assessment and problem solving, starting with crawlers and toddlers.
3. Remember the “Blessing of a Skinned Knee“.

Physical Play
Children need lots of experience relying on their own body and mind to solve physical dilemmas. Magda Gerber, co-founder of RIE, Resources for Infant Educarers, cautioned parents and teachers never to put a child on a piece of equipment that he didn’t get on by himself. She believed it robbed the child of the ability to mentally construct the spatial awareness that gave the child the self control to master the equipment and his body. Shannon Visentin, occupational therapist and play advocate from Thera-Peds in Boca Raton, urges children to crawl, climb, explore and move to develop optimal brain and body functioning.

Fine motor skills are built upon gross motor skills. Cognitive skills like attention and focus require strong a physical core developed from crawling, stretching and balance activities. Executive function skills, i.e. impulse control and study skills, require physical control and real-world decision making. So, trade in that bumbo chair that confines and artificially supports your child’s torso for a bilibo. Look for open-ended crawling, climbing, rocking equipment that adapts to each age and stage of development like the curvy boards from Kodo Kids. And, say hello to steps, slides, puddle jumping, log climbing, rolling races, bongo balancing and moving like every animal and creature, real and imagined.

Of course, bubble wrapping kids sounds a lot easier than fearlessly and patiently watching your child teeter at the top of a slide. Except your child needs you to believe in her ability and her resourcefulness. Surprising, most children pace their risk to their own comfort level and their own ability. That’s the best gift you can give your child – an inner barometer of personal success. And for the children who do first – think second, your fear isn’t stopping them anyway.

Encourage self-awareness, self-assessment and problem solving:

1. Use spatial vocabulary to help your child connect brain and body. “Look at how high you are – one more step and you’re at the top”. “Do you want to go over or under?” Each time you describe a “wide” space, “narrow” space, or “tight” space, you are teaching new concepts. Children learn spatial comparisons from experimental play not from being passive – e.g. when they try to fit a toddler body in a Hot Wheels car or climb into the toy shopping cart.
2. Help your child see how to help herself. Describe the situation rather than trying to fix the problem. “Hold on, you’re close to the edge.” “Where do you want to step next?” “Find your balance before you try again.” “I’ll stand here in case you need me.”
3. Let your child assess what to do next. Give help or support if requested. Also give time to practice and build mastery. Some children want and need 3 months to master an intimidating slide for example. The learning and the confidence will be long lasting versus a helpful shortcut that teaches dependency and reinforces anxiety.

Good risks
Good risks build knowledge from hands-on, heart-in learning. Kids rarely learn because you told them so or because you did it for them. Wendy Mogel built a whole philosophy around it in her book, The Blessing of a Skinned Knee. Try to think of every fall, the bumps, cuts and bruises, as essential to learning and growing. More importantly, children in charge of their own bodies build competence and confidence from within. And that’s worth a little risk!

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