My son has earned the nicknames Spiderman and Furniture Destroyer because if there’s a wall, tree, or curb to climb and jump off, you can count on him to do it. When he was younger, it seemed that every day was a brand new mission to get hurt, and it was exhausting trying to figure out how to keep him safe and determine whether there was actual danger—or just my perceived danger.
Deciding what you allow a child to experience and what to protect them from can be challenging. As a parent coach and cognitive specialist, I know how important it is for parents to let their children take some risks as risk-taking is a critical stage in child development. I wanted my kids to develop the full benefits of testing their newfound skills, however, as a mom, it was easier said than done for me, too.
It can be hard to see past the toddler years and into adulthood while you’re in them, but building early independence will help build a more confident child (and adult!). Here are some ways to (safely) encourage toddler independence, when it seems like they only want to injure themselves.
Understand Your Child’s Development
First, learn why they do what they do. Developmentally speaking, once a child becomes mobile, they have a deep desire to learn from their environment. On average, between 10-14 months, your child might begin to walk without aid; they are building necessary fine and gross motor skills that will enable them to do other tasks later on in development. However, with little life experience but increased mobility skills, you now have a child who might attempt what appears to be dangerous feats daily.
At this stage, cognitively, your child wants to figure things out independently; they have been watching with deep curiosity and are now ready to put things into practice. According to Piaget’s four stages of cognitive development, your child is in the Sensorimotor skill of development, which occurs during the first two years. This stage builds coordination, a sense of self and things, and manipulates the environment. After a child masters one stage they are developmentally ready to move to the next, which is the exploratory stage of development.
Encourage Exploratory Learning
Children learn by exploring. A child can spend hours looking throughout their environment to see how things work and what they do. Young children want to use all their senses to examine items around them. Sometimes their exploration looks harmless, however, it can also be dangerous because a young child will not have the same sense of danger as a parent or caregiver (i.e. a hot stove, sharp knife, etc.).
Parents may notice their child is more interested in discovering what a toy can do. Exploratory learning can also occur in the absence of toys. For example, once a child starts moving, they want to know how fast or slow they can crawl, walk, or run. Remember, this is a newly acquired skill they’ll want to practice.
When a child explores their surroundings, they learn how the environment works and the rules around the workings of the environment. This technique is helping a child with their cognitive development.
Ideas for Exploratory Learning
Help your child with their exploratory learning by creating or setting up an environment for them to freely explore and learn, for example:
- Set up sensory tables to help a child explore senses and place an unfamiliar item in the house to elicit curiosity.
- Set up an obstacle course or fort with pillows and cushions.
- Demonstrate how to go up and down steps while holding onto the rail.
- Practice walking vs. running game. Instead of saying, “stop running” use the phrase “walking feet.”
- Set up a nature observation area to learn how to look, but leave nature alone.
Allow Safe Risks
The greater the exploration, the greater the risks. While a child is developing their confidence, they take greater risks. Risk-taking behavior is expected in child development. Children need to take risks to build inner confidence. Physical activity is often the preferred choice for young kids—running, climbing and or jumping is typically what parents fear the most. It’s important that they are allowed to build their gross motor skills, but in a safe manner.
When my son started to walk, he bypassed walking and went straight into running. He ran everywhere. While I never chased him because I feared he would think it was a game; that did not stop our family dog from pursuing him, and that’s what they did, running into anything and everything. While this was not my favorite activity, I saw how he would learn to stop himself short of reaching a wall or an object and only select to crash onto soft furniture. Most of the time, I was at a safe and comfortable distance to observe but also intervened if needed.
How to Intervene When Risks Are Unsafe
As a parent, remember that goal is to give caution but not scare. Unfortunately, a child can easily be scared away from an activity due to how emotionally reactive a parent can be toward the perceived danger. Here are some tips for intervening:
- Control your emotional response to the act to avoid not giving the child an unnecessary phobia.
- Be direct about what you are warning against. A child does not have the full capability to put themselves in the shoe of someone else.
- Show the child with a toy or story form why this can be dangerous, and use age-appropriate language.
The last thing to remember is that a child is in the learning stage of life, and the only way we learn is with repetition. Therefore, you will have to repeatedly repeat yourself and guide them towards caution, which is okay.
Allowing a child to take safe and calculated risks helps them develop self-regulation, develop and master a new skill, build confidence and autonomy—even if it’s hard for us parents to stand-by and watch.