When I was a child, adults didn’t hover. My friends and I had the run of the neighborhood. Much of the time my parents didn’t even know where I was. And this started young – by age 6, I was allowed out of my yard to go to my friend’s house across the street on my own. Not much later, I could explore the woods behind my house with my friends – not an adult in sight. By the time I was 12, I could ride my bike to the mall several miles away.

These days, none of that is likely to happen for many children. “Helicopter” parenting is the norm. Kids have less and less unstructured, unrestricted time alone with peers. Not knowing exactly where your children are and what they are doing is often considered irresponsible and dangerous. Sometimes, parents who allow their child to walk home from school or play in a park alone are faced with a call to the authorities. 

Where is the balance? How can we expect children to become independent, problem-solving adults if we never give them the space to explore, build confidence, and discover what they are capable of?

It’s tricky these days because it isn’t the norm. But when you give your child age-appropriate space to assess risk and test their own boundaries, there are some really big benefits. And though risk (especially physical risk-taking) does come with the possibility of injury, research has shown that the majority of these injuries are minor, typically not requiring any medical intervention (Brussoni, et al). Additionally, children are often very skilled at deciding if something is safe or too risky.

Here are some of the benefits your children can get when you allow them to take some risks:

Fear management. When children can look at a tree and decide for themselves how high they’ll climb, or choose which step to jump from, or find a way to break into a group of children playing without adult intervention, they’re learning to face their fears. Being able to confront fear head on can keep anxiety at bay. With the rising rates of anxiety in children, this is an important consideration.

Emotional regulation. Risks don’t always work out the way we hope. When children fall and get a bruise, or wrestle with friends and get overwhelmed or hurt, big feelings emerge. But stepping back and letting them feel those feelings, pick themselves up, and try again can lead to a greater ability to manage those emotions. 

Self Confidence. When children are allowed to test new skills, they become much more confident in their ability to do things independently. The pride a child demonstrates when they master something new is a clear indication that their confidence is growing. And this can lead to a greater willingness to try new things.

Social Competence. Risk-taking in a group setting, such as child care, school, or on the neighborhood playground with other children, helps build social skills. As children encourage and help each other, negotiate rules and turn-taking, and problem-solve together, they are learning how to function in the larger world. 

With all those great rewards, how can you support your child in taking safe risks?

  1. Assess for hazards, but allow risk. Of course, you don’t want to just let your child roam into an unsafe situation. It’s important to check for hazards – things that can actually cause harm, like broken glass or run-down equipment. If the environment is safe overall, allow for risk-taking – like making choices about how high to climb, how fast to run, or how far to jump.
  2. Manage your own anxiety/fear. If you are lurking nearby with a nervous expression, constantly saying “be careful,” or otherwise exhibiting signs of anxiety over what your child is doing, you may be inadvertently sending the message that you don’t think they are capable. That, in turn, limits the risks they may be willing to take. Take a deep breath and offer words of encouragement instead. 
  3. Step back and allow free movement. When at a playground, park, indoor trampoline park, or rock climbing gym, don’t feel like you have to be inches from your child at all times. Even fairly young children can be given some freedom to explore while you keep your eyes on them from a distance. Giving your child some space sends the message that you trust them to know their own boundaries and limits. 
  4. Play outside – a lot! Even if you aren’t comfortable letting your child roam freely in the woods, spend lots of time together in places that offer uneven terrain, water to explore, fallen trees, climbing trees, or large rocks to maneuver. Let them get muddy and messy. Allow them to jump over (and sometimes fall into) shallow streams. Show them how to safely build a fire in a campfire pit, and let them help tend it.

Letting go of fear and worry about what others may think if you let your child take risks can be tough, but the cost of not allowing it is high. When children are not given the opportunity to assess their capabilities, their physical, social, and emotional health can all suffer. Staying “safe” at the expense of this critical development simply isn’t worth it.

Reference: 

Brussoni, M.; Gibbons, R.; Gray, C.; Ishikawa, T.; Sandseter, E.B.H.; Bienenstock, A.; Chabot, G.; Fuselli, P.; Herrington, S.; Janssen, I.; et al. What is the Relationship between Risky Outdoor Play and Health in Children? A Systematic Review. Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 2015, 12, 6423-6454. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph120606423

Additional Resource: www.rustykeeler.com

Elizabeth Richards has been an early childhood professional for nearly 30 years. She is a preschool teacher, freelance writer, and early childhood trainer. She has led parent workshops and developed courses for ECE professionals, particularly around managing challenging behaviors, art, and play. She has two teenage sons.