How often do you say to your kids “Be careful!” as they climb to the top of the slide or try to go across the monkey bars? Do you hover and step in when they start to struggle? It’s hard not to right? I’ve done it, and have had to force myself to step back and let them figure it out, even if it means they fall down.
A few weeks into learning to ride a bike, my 5-year-old son asked if he could ride down a large dirt hill in our neighborhood. As we climbed to the top of the hill, my overprotective instincts simply wanted to tell him no. But I saw the determination on his little face. So I just said, “There’s a chance you’ll fall off your bike on the way down but it’s your decision.” “Let me think about it,” he said. He stood there with his helmet, pondering the steep decline. A few minutes later, he told me he was ready and took off.
As I watched him go down, I thought he was going to make it. But at the very bottom, he hit a little rock, flipped over the handle bars and ended up with a mouth full of dirt and blood. As I ran to him, I thought Why did I let him do that? Why did I let him take the risk of getting hurt? But after spitting out the blood and dirt and drying his tears, he made my heart swell.
“I’m glad I tried mom, but I think I’ll wait until I’m a little bigger before I go down that hill again.” He tried, he took the risk, and I know that he learned from it. He learned that he has limitations, that there are things out of his control, like random rocks in the dirt. And he learned that he can get back up after a major fall, get back on his bike and keep going.
These lessons are critical for a child’s development. Research shows as our playgrounds have gotten safer, kids today are taking fewer risks while playing outside and it’s harming their long term development. According to the International Playground Safety Institute, risk on the playground is essential for children’s growth, creating challenges which allow children opportunities to succeed and/or fail based on individual reasoning and choices helping them to learn risk management.
I don’t want my children to get hurt, and I step in when something is truly hazardous or dangerous — but I also want them to learn their limits and when to push. I’d rather they start to learn and understand these concepts when I am watching from a park bench and the main consequence is a scraped knee or even broken arm. I’m hopeful that this will help them with decision making and risk assessment when they are older and I’m not there to watch their every move. So instead of saying “Be careful!”, I hold my breath and watch with pride as they try new things, take chances, and simply learn to figure it out.
But I’m always there to pick them up if they fall.