Kids wrapped in cotton wool might struggle with life’s challenges when they grow up. Pediatrics professor Mariana Brussoni at the University of British Columbia says optimal development requires risky play from a young age. Not only do they gain balance and physical strength, but they also develop confidence, resilience and risk management skills. All in all, they learn better social skills.
The professor’s words make sense, but most parents have so many fears about their kids’ safety that they obsessively create boundaries to protect them. Before they can walk and talk properly, children learn about what they may not do because they might be hurt. Many parents intensely fear the possibility of abductions or serious injuries, even though the risk of them being in car accidents is much higher. However, they do not fret or hesitate to take their kids in their own or other peoples’ cars.
Where to start introducing kids to risky play?
Keep in mind that your children will deal with endless lists of things they may not do in public parks, playgrounds and school. Change the way you speak to your children when they play. You can keep an eye on them and be close to help when necessary. Hold back on those “Watch out!” “Be careful!” “That’s too high!” calls. You can think of them, but don’t shout them out. All you need to do is be there to lend a hand if your child asks for help.
Dress the kids appropriately
Dress them in clothes that can get muddy or even torn. I remember my mother saying a happy child is a dirty child — as long as they are spotless when they go to bed at night and wake up in the morning! For the little ones, playing in mud is far more exciting than playing in a sandpit.
Venture into the backyard with the kids
Let them out of the safe indoors to have fun in the risky backyard. That is an excellent place to start, and progress to the neighborhood park or a walk in nature. Spend the first few times with them in the backyard. Once they feel comfortable, watch them from a window. Allow them to feel independent, but set boundaries and help them understand why you set them.
Allow the kids to take the lead
Don’t hold the child’s hand. Let the kids choose what to explore and let them be. If you go for a walk in the forest, let them have fun splashing in puddles, climbing over fallen logs and do all the other risky things. Remember, they will only tackle things they feel comfortable doing. Let them run ahead, but set a rule that they must always be able to see you when they look back. Don’t say you want to be able to see them; put the responsibility on them.
Let the kids decide what is too risky
You might be surprised, but children are good at gauging the risk level before tackling a new activity. Allow them to take on challenges, and if it makes you nervous, don’t show it. Never put doubt in the mind of a young child.
Build a zip line or a treehouse in the backyard
If your backyard allows it, help kids to get used to heights at their own pace. Allow them to climb as high as they feel comfortable. However, if they ask help to get higher, they’ve probably reached their limit, and that is when it becomes dangerous. Furthermore, explain from the get-go that they will have to find their own way down. With every step higher, they must consider how they will get down. That way, they will recognize their own limits.
Give them tools to encourage hand skills
Allow your child to use tools like boards, nails, a hammer and a small saw. Let them use their imagination to construct whatever they want. Dedicate a space in the garage where they can leave ongoing projects. Don’t hold them back; if they miss the nail and hit a finger, don’t make a fuss. Explain that it is part of the game and to be more careful the next time.
If your kids want to structure a mud kitchen, complete with mud cakes, encourage them. However, make the cleaning up afterward their responsibility. With that, I mean the mud kitchen area and any equipment or toys that formed part of the fun.
If you’re able to go camping, there’s a lot your children can explore. Give them a small hatchet to help chopping kindling, and use the opportunity to teach them about fire safety in a hands-on way.
If you live close to water, enroll the kids in swimming lessons. Use the same hands-on way to teach them safety on the water, such as kayaking, canoeing, etc.
Use this winter to teach your kids not to fear inclement weather. Dress them warmly and venture out in snow, wind, rain and frigid cold. That will prepare them for participation in skiing, sledding, mountain biking, snowshoeing and ice-fishing.