Do any other parents find themselves shrieking ‘Too high!’ ‘Too fast!’ Too far!’ much more often than they thought they would? The thing is, recent studies suggest that reducing risk-taking too much actually hinders the process of development in a child.
But how do we encourage them to take risks in a way that doesn't end up in a trip to the emergency room?
The Benefits of Risk Taking
When a toddler is learning to walk, they are running the risk of falling over and hurting themselves. Nevertheless, as parents, we encourage them to take that risk, because we know that the physical and emotional developmental benefits far outweigh the chance for a couple of bruises.
So why do we approach risk taking differently as our children get older?
Studies have shown that children actually need risks in order to develop and learn at an optimum level. Risk taking helps them to become active participants in their communities, as well as knowing how to regulate their own behaviours. The Institute of Childhood at Macquarie University outlines some of the benefits of risk taking:
Children gain mastery over their bodies through risk-taking, developing a wide range of manipulative and motor skills. Their muscle strength, endurance and skeletal strength all benefit from the process.
Risk-taking actually enhances perceptual development. Kids who have opportunities to take risks develop a more complex understanding of depth, form, shape, size, movement, perception and spatial-orientation.
Children learn how to manage risk, developing skills in negotiating the environment and learning the consequences (both positive and negative) of risk-taking. This helps them to develop the ability to make informed decisions from a range of choices, a vital life skill.
Risk-taking builds a sense of accomplishment. Children gain a sense of confidence and competence, and are encouraged by the process to seek new challenges and learn new skills.
The Effects of Minimising Risk
Children have an innate need for risk. When this need isn’t satisfied with reasonable risks, kids will often seek out their own thrills. These are often much more hazardous experiences, where the potential for harm far outweighs the potential benefits.
When children aren’t given the opportunity to take well-managed risks, there are a number of negative effects, according to the Macquarie University:
Poor evaluation of risk situations
Increased injury as a result of an increase in unsafe risk-taking
The change in the quality of physical play means that children gain fewer benefits from physical play. This leads to underdeveloped motor skills and the risk of chronic illnesses associated with low levels of activity.
Encouraging Healthy Risk Taking
So how do we use the power of risk taking in a way that leads to positive benefits for our kids?
The Child and Nature Alliance of Canada has an excellent list of things to say to your child instead of saying ‘be careful!’. Below is a sample, showing how you can help your child to learn how to manage risk effectively:
Stay focused on what you’re doing.
What is your next move?
Do you feel stable/balanced there?
Take your time
Watch out for other people and give them lots of space.
Let’s move this to a lower-traffic zone.
Sticks/stones need space! [Name], look around you. Do you have enough space to swing that stick?
Find more space!
Make eye contact before you tackle someone. Make sure they know you are coming so that they can get their body ready.
Check in with each other. Make sure everyone is still having a good time.
Ask him if he’s OK.
Did you like that? Make sure you tell her if you didn’t like that.
And while risk-taking on the playground might be a good idea, risk taking when it comes to sun-safety isn't! Make sure they slip, slop, slap, seek and slide on those children's sunglasses whenever they're outside.