Why You Should Let Your Child Explore Boundaries and Do 'Dangerous' Things

I’m a mom of a busy 5-year-old boy, so I know how much kids want to explore the world around them. I also know how nervous it makes me when my son is about to do something dangerous. Sometimes it’s hard for me to let him play without intervening, and I find myself saying “be careful” more than I’d like to admit. But the same things that I worry about can benefit him too!

Donna Whittaker, VP of curriculum and education at Big Blue Marble Academy, says, “Risky play can help children gain confidence in their abilities, practice persistence, spend focused attention on a task, use higher-order thinking skills like problem-solving and develop a sense of safety and risk.” 

Norwegian psychologist Dr. Ellen Beate Hansen Sandseter has done extensive research on the benefits of risky play. She categorized it into 6 areas:

Great Heights

It’s normal for kids to climb on furniture, up trees, and on playground equipment. Whittaker says the first thing to consider is how your child does while on the ground. Think about their ability to balance when doing activities like running or climbing at lower heights.

If your child is not yet skilled at these grounded activities, Whittaker advises encouraging them to practice. Ask them what their plan is for the activity they’re doing. Remind them how much practice a mountain climber has before they climb to great heights. Talking about it can get them to think before acting, and consider possible outcomes of their actions.

Rapid Speeds 

A conversation is a great place to start if your child is doing activities at high speeds. Whittaker says you can ask your child questions like “Does it make your body feel good to go that fast?” and “Is it exciting?” The point of talking this through with your child is to teach them that if something feels good, it doesn’t mean it is good for you, or safe. Talk about the importance of practicing controlling their bike before taking on a large hill, and about the risks of playing at high speeds — and always emphasize wearing a helmet and other protective equipment!

Dangerous Tools

Children are sponges when it comes to words and actions. When your child sees you using a dangerous tool like a hammer or scissors, they want to try it too.

Whittaker says it’s important to teach your child how to use tools the correct way. She suggests using golf tees for nails and hammering them into a styrofoam cup with a rubber mallet. Use these tools to practice before they use the real thing. 

“When children think they can accomplish something they consider hard, they are much more likely to take on challenging tasks in the future,” says Whittaker.

Risky Elements

Being in nature is good for children, but it can pose a danger too. Natural elements like fire and water entice children. Start a conversation about nature and how elements can be powerful. You want them to have the experience and keep them safe at the same time. “With all risky play, you will need to weigh the risk against the reward,” says Whittaker. Explain to your child that for a while you’ll need to hold their hand as they walk in the stream or around a fire.

Rough and Tumble

Many children love to wrestle and play rough. This kind of play is great for their bodies to get used to moving in different ways. It’s also a good opportunity to teach discretion and that when someone says “stop,” you stop. Be sure to explain that something might be OK at home but not at school, and that every family is different. 

Disappearing/Getting Lost

Playing hide-and-seek is a favorite of many children at home and on the playground. Talk about which places are safe for hiding, and when it’s not appropriate to hide from your adult. Whittaker suggests saying something like “If we are in the house, then you can hide. But never go outside to hide without letting me know.”

If you’ve raised a child, you know how important their independence is for them. They want everything to be their idea and they like to do things on their own. And there is no harm in granting a child some independence. Allow them to explore their world, and try not to step in unless it’s unsafe.

Children are inquisitive beings; they use their experiences to learn. Young children learn through their senses, and some need to move to learn best. It’s important for them to discover things independently. 

Whittaker says that children learn through pictures. “The more experiences (pictures) they have in their file, the sooner they learn the concept.” If you show them a flower, they have one picture in their file. Using their other senses like smell and touch allows them to get more out of the experience. In the end, it’s all about keeping them safe while letting them explore the world around them. 

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