Why Avoiding Risks With Your Child Can Be Risky

Why Avoiding Risks With Your Child Can Be Risky

Hands up if you find yourself yelling out “BE CAREFUL!” more times than you have fingers each day? It’s a completely natural and normal reaction to have as parents, after all our number one priority is making sure our children are safe, happy and healthy. But what if constantly hovering over our children, telling them to “be careful!” and scooping them up at the slightest sign of danger is actually doing more harm than good? Allowing our children to engage in risky play from infancy provides an array of benefits, so we thought we’d share simple risky play setups as well as some strategies you can use to fight our natural urges to be overly cautious.

The One Who Cried 'Careful!'

We’re all familiar with the famous tale ‘The Boy Who Cried Wolf’; the boy cried wolf to the townspeople when there was no wolf so many times that when there was a wolf, none of the townspeople believed him. The same theory can happen when we yell out “be careful” too many times. Eventually “be careful” won’t mean much to a child anymore, and when a dangerous situation arises where the child really does need to be careful, they may brush it off and simply ignore. 

The overuse of ‘be careful’ or similar phrases rarely explain to the child what they should be careful of! It’s more likely to startle or distract them, causing them to lose concentration and actually be more vulnerable to having an accident. 

Finally, if you believe in respectful and responsive and conscious parenting, then this simple phrase of ‘be careful’ may not be one you want to get into the habit of saying. 'Be Careful' sends the message that we don’t trust our children and their capabilities. Instead we want to empower and instil an intrinsic awareness that they are capable and competent. By continuously jumping in to save them or telling them to be careful shows doubt in our belief about what they can and can't do, or more importantly, doubt that we don’t trust that they can judge their own abilities and boundaries.

When To Step Up and When To Step Back

Let’s start out by defining what we mean by “risky play”. We’re not talking about letting our kids play on the road or with a pack of Uncle Vern’s ciggies. When assessing your child’s play environment or situation, you can ask yourself whether there is potential for serious/ fatal injury; this can be classed as dangerous, or whether there is potential for only minor injuries; this can be classed as risky. If there is a risk of serious and fatal injuries then we most definitely step up and take control while making our children aware of why we have had to do so. However, if the risk is simply the potential of minor injury then we can then step back.

As much as it pains us to see our children fall over and scrape their knee, or bump their head, there’s really no avoiding it - as often these injuries can happen during mundane, and typically safe activities - such as walking down a familiar street! 

One of my favourite quotes comes from Teacher Tom’s blog post ‘The right number of bloody owies’:

"If you have no bloody owies, then you are being too careful. If you have three or more bloody owies then you're not being careful enough. The right number of bloody owies is one or two. That means you're not being too careful or too careless." - Teacher Tom 


So Why Is Risky Play Important?

It's all about ‘Freedom of Movement’ and building an awareness of what one is capable of. In other words, giving children the opportunity to learn about how far they can push their body and determining where their own limit is for themselves.

Engaging in risky play also helps:

  • Support a growth mindset
  • Supports executive functioning skills such as problem solving and persistence 
  • Supports core strength, balance and coordination,
  • The ability to assess and make their own judgement about risks,
  • Confidence in how to use tools safely 
  • Understand the consequences of their actions.

It is only with ‘experience’ that children can understand and learn how to be safe. 

It’s important to note that a child who has been helped to climb structures that were out of their capabilities or that have been scooped up before they fall down since infancy will not be able to suddenly understand their own bodies and take safe risks. They haven’t been given the opportunity to do this as a youngster where their mobility and co ordination literally limits them for taking on risks too challenging. This is why it is best to start from day one with considered risks. However, if your child is a bit older and you are wanting to change your approach, you can do so gradually by providing safe opportunities to learn about their body and the way it moves without posing a giant risk. 

"Risky play" can be as simple as offering your baby free floor play from day one. This allows for them to begin to experience the world through their own body without restrictions that bumbos and bouncers provide.

How You Can Set Up Controlled Risky Play

Risky play can happen anywhere, whether it be at a playground, beach, shopping centre or simply in your own home. We can categories types of risky play into the following:

  1. Heights
  2. Speed
  3. Getting lost – or hiding play
  4. Working with real tools including cooking utensils
  5. Playing near or with dangerous elements such as fire or water 
  6. Rough and tumble play – roughhousing

The degree of risk to the above is, of course, dependent on the child’s age and developmental stage - for example, a 9mo might find climbing a couch cushion as a risky height play whereas a 3yo could be climbing a tree. 

You can start with small climbing structures and slowly increase the height and incline as their confidence grows.


If you’re wanting to set up controlled risky play opportunities, here are some simple ideas to get your child engaged in each category: Of course risky play is not about taking all hands off the steering wheel. It's about knowing your child and the balance of helping 'just enough' so they can succeed and remain safe. 

Great heights 

Climbing structures (our Pikler Climbing Frame is perfect for this!), jumping off things, climbing trees 

Dangerous elements 

Playing with water, building a campfire, cooking over the stove 

Getting lost 

Playing hide and seek, nature walks, making cubbies in the woods, hiding under a box or in our Pikler Play Cube 

Real tools 

Knives and cutters, hammers and nails, gardening tools 

Rough and tumble play 

Remember to always maintain consent when roughhousing, it’s good to have an agreed word to stop the game immediately


Climbing frames are a great resource for all sorts of risky play.


Speaking Up Instead Of Stepping In

Just because you are trying not to step in, doesn’t mean you need to sit quietly on the sidelines. There are some great ways you can get involved and subtly help your child without physically helping them. 


A great way to bring risk awareness to your child is to talk through and narrate the risks that they may be engaging in, for example, “I can see that rock is a bit slippery, is there another rock near you instead?”. 

Remove Any Hazards

You can check the environment your child is about to engage in and remove any hazards such as rocks, toys etc that your child may fall onto.

Talk It Through

You can quickly chat through any potential risks with your child before they go off to play.

Be Their Cheerleader

Give your child lots of encouragement and acknowledge their efforts and persistence as they explore and learn about their body. 

Remember a child who is able to push themselves to their limit understands what their limit is - and that is what creates safer children!

1yo Reuben crawled down steps and across rocks to get to Nan's water fountain while his mum watched and helped bring awareness to his senses by talking through the textures of the steps and rocks.


Time To Focus On You 

Just because we now know why it’s so important to stop ourselves from stepping in and being helicopter parents, doesn’t mean we can simply flick a switch and stop. So we have put together some internal skills you can start to practice when you next find you and your child in a risky play environment: 

TRUST - try and see your baby as capable and competent, potentially more than you initially anticipated to be

PATIENCE - in order to support healthy and safe risk-taking, we have to make time and space for it to happen e.g. it's much easier and quicker to carry your kid up and down the stairs than let them do it on their own

FORWARD THINKING - planning for how you will support risky play requires some prep work to make it safe

KNOWING YOUR CHILD AND YOUR OWN BOUNDARIES. Being aware of their capability will help you know when to step in and when to step back.




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