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Managing Safety

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Children at play push the boundaries of safety, often because they don’t know the boundaries are there. They need grown-ups to set the limits to help them negotiate the inevitable tumbles of being a kid.


The question for us is where, when, and how to set those limits. We can’t keep them in boo-boo-free bubbles forever. So what do we do?


In every situation, parents are on guard, constantly measuring the potential for risk. Reading a book in the corner is perfectly safe. Standing on the kitchen counter is cause for all-out panic!


Those are the easy ones – extremely safe and extremely dangerous. But most of the time kids are playing in what we call “The Zone of Uncertainty” where lots of development is happening but there’s also a chance something could go wrong. This is where our instinct to protect runs right into their need to find out what they can do.

Physical accomplishments give little ones the confidence and courage they need to push through boundaries not just on the playground but in the classroom and every other facet of life. In The Zone of Uncertainty (where there is no immediate or obvious danger), try to consider both the risk AND the reward for whatever they’re trying to do. Here are a few strategies that might help...


When YOUR CHILD IS UNCERTAIN, step in and give them guidance and support... physical and/or verbal as needed. Follow their lead as much as you can. It’s only a triumph when they feel they’ve done it themselves.

When YOU ARE UNCERTAIN, be ready to step in, but also consider how loud to ring the alarm bell. It’s important not to discourage or scare them. If you’re fearful, they may pick up on that. If you doubt their abilities they will too. Here’s an approach you may want to try: Pause. Prompt. Praise.

Pause if you can.

When you see a potential problem that does NOT present immediate danger, before reacting, pause for a moment. This gives your child time to work it through for themselves.


Gently prompt.

Tell them what you’re feeling. “Gee, that looks a bit tricky. I wonder how we could do that safely?” Engage them in conversation to get them thinking about safety for themselves.


Become their play assistant.

“What if we tried that together? What would you like me to do? Where would you like me to stand?” Be sure they feel they are leading the way so they are confident in your confidence in them.


Introduce consequential thinking.

“I wonder what might happen if...” Help them envision the possibilities (good and bad).


Ask leading questions.

“I wonder if it’s safe to do that here? Where might be a better place to play that game?” Work with them to find their own solution.


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Provide specific encouragement.

“Good job!” isn’t enough. As they play, identify things they are doing well (and safely). “I love the way you hold on with both hands.” Specific cues help them play safely this time and the next.

Personal Best

For young children, pushing themselves to new limits can be daunting so moving from the known to the unknown is a great strategy. For instance, the next time your child is climbing tie a ribbon around their highest point. When they come back to ground, celebrate where they got to. Next time, point to the ribbon and ask them to climb up to it again. Then from there, see if they’re ready to surpass their “personal best.” This is a great way to develop inner drive by competing with themselves.

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