We say it all the time—the words seem to automatically fall out of our mouths when we see someone, especially a child doing something we perceive as dangerous. Children hear the words so often they start to become meaningless. What are we really trying to say when we tell children to be careful?
Risk is a part of childhood play. In fact, true nature play cannot be void of risks because risk is an inherent part of nature. As a child, taking risks allows children to match their skills with the demands of the environment. Can I balance on that log? What happens when my shoes are slick with rain? Am I strong enough to pull myself up onto that ledge without falling? A child that grows up in a risk-averse environment may grow up very timid and reluctant to take risks or, on the opposite side of the spectrum, may have difficulty judging a situation and put themselves in serious danger.
As adults, we can help children manage risky situations without removing the risk altogether. We can allow children to engage in healthy risk, guiding them using more specific words and phrases. Next time you want to say “be careful,” think about what message you want to share. “Backwoods Mama” created a list of helpful, specific suggestions:
Fostering Awareness of Body & Environment
Notice how… these rocks are slippery, the log is rotten, that branch is strong.
Do you see… the poison ivy, the hanging branch, the gap between those two rocks?
Try moving… your feet slowly, carefully, quickly, to the left.
Try using your… hands, feet, arms, legs.
Can you hear… the rushing water, the singing birds, the wind?
Do you feel… stable on that rock, the heat from the fire?
Are you feeling… scared, excited, tired, safe?
Encouraging Problem Solving
What’s your plan… for climbing those rocks, crossing that log?
What can you use… to get across, to reach that ledge?
Where will you… put that rock, place your foot?
How will you…. get down, go up, get across?
Who will… be with you, go with you, help you if?
Ways to help children navigate tricky situations don't end with the suggestions above. Next time you want to say be careful, try taking these steps in your head first:
Is the situation actually risky or is this just a perceived risk?
Does the child need my help or can they handle it on their own?
What can I say that will help them in this situation?
To learn more about risky play, visit our page.