EVEN THOUGH THE MODERN world isn’t any more dangerous than it was 30 or 40 years ago, it feels like a more perilous place. Or, more accurately, we inhabit the world today in a way that’s much more risk averse; for a variety of reasons, our tolerance for risk, especially concerning our children’s safety, has steadily declined.
So we remove jungle gyms from playgrounds, ban bullrush at recess, prohibit knives (even the butter variety) at school, and would rather have our kids playing with an iPad than rummaging through the garage or roaming around the neighbourhood.
Unfortunately, when you control for one set of risks, another simply arises in its place. In this case, in trying to prevent some bruises and broken bones, we also inhibit our children’s development of autonomy, competence, confidence, and resilience.
By insisting on doing everything ourselves, because we can do things better and more safely, we deprive kids of the chance to make and test observations, to experiment and tinker, to fail and bounce back. In treating everything like a major risk, we prevent kids from learning how to distinguish between the truly dangerous, and the simply unfamiliar.
Fortunately, we can restore the positive traits that have been smothered by overprotective parenting, by restoring some of the ‘dangerous’ activities that have lately gone missing from childhood. The suggestions below were taken both from the book by Gever Tully, 50 Dangerous Things (you should let your children do), as well as memories from my own more ‘free range’ childhood. If you grew up a few decades back, these activities may seem obvious to you, but they’re less a part of kids’ lives today, and hopefully these reminders can help spark their revival.
While each contains an element of danger and chance of injury, these risks can be managed by you, the parent: Permit or disallow activities based on your child’s individual age, maturity level, and abilities. Take necessary precautions (which are common sense and which I’m not going to entirely spell out for you; you’re a grown-up, not a moron). Teach and demonstrate correct principles, and supervise some practice runs.
Once you’ve created this scaffolding of safety, however, try to step back and give your child some independence. Step in only when a real danger exists, or when your adult strength/dexterity/know-how is absolutely necessary. And don’t be afraid to let your kids fail. That’s how they learn and become more resilient.
In return for letting your children grapple with a little bit of healthy risk, the activities below teach motor skills, develop confidence, and get kids acquainted with the use of tools and some of the basic principles of science. Outside any educational justification, however, they’re just plain fun – something we’ve forgotten can be a worthy childhood pursuit in and of itself!
Stick your arm out a car window
Sticking their arm out the window of a moving car and letting their hand ride the wind is a great way for kids to get acquainted with the basic principles of aerodynamics — it’s like a personal wind tunnel. Encourage your child to play with different positions — moving the angle of her hand, closing and opening her fingers — to observe how these variations affect lift and drag.
Yes, an arm could be severed if it hit an object alongside the road, but objects are very, very rarely positioned close enough to cause a collision. And if they are, your kid’s got eyes, doesn’t she?
Jump off a cliff
When you jump from a cliff six metres high, you’ll hit the water at 40 kilometres an hour. That’s enough force to do some serious bodily damage. But making such jumps, and even those which are higher, are certainly doable, even for small kids, as long as you take precautions and teach them proper technique.
Make sure the water is deep enough; for a jump of six metres, the water should be at least two-and-a-half metres deep. Then add half a metre or so for every additional three metres of jump height. Ensure the landing spot is free from underwater obstacles like rocks. And teach your child to jump in a pencil dive: body straight, arms overhead, back slightly arched to avoid rotating forward. For little ones who aren’t strong swimmers, put them in a life jacket before they Geronimo! into the water.
Climb a tree
Few activities feel more liberating than climbing a tree. It’s thrilling to leave the ground and test your physical deftness, as well as your daring as you decide just how high up you’ll go. The air seems fresher among the branches. The most classic of classic childhood activities, hopefully tree climbing will continue on for another millennia.
Roughhousing may just look like a primitive-level melee of potentially injury-causing wrestling and hair pulling, but it actually has a bunch of high-level benefits. Whether children are mixing it up with Dad or with each other, research has shown that good old-fashioned horseplay develops kids’ resilience, intelligence, and even empathy — it teaches them how to negotiate the dynamics of aggression, cooperation, and fair play. So ‘suplex’ your children more often, and don’t break up the good-natured battle royales they put on between themselves.
Make a fire
There’s a primal connection between man and fire. Nurture that connection with your kids while they’re young. Let them play with matches and light candles when they’re pre-school age (with your supervision). They’ll learn that fire indeed burns, but from a flame so small it won’t hurt too much if it glances their skin. When they get to be about eight or nine, let them build a fire all by themselves (still with your supervision, of course).
Burn things with a magnifying glass
There are many fun and interesting ways to start a fire without matches, but using a magnifying glass is one of the most versatile. It provides you with a focused beam of heat that cannot only burn paper and leaves, but melt plastic. A kid can even use it to burn a symbol or his name into a piece of wood.
Cook a meal
Cooking might not seem that dangerous, but once your kids start wanting to help make dinner, you begin noticing how many tasks prompt a “Whoa, be careful there!” response. Sharp knives, stove fire, and hot pans present hazards. I remember when I was five, I decided to nuke a bowl of milk by myself; when I took the bowl out of the microwave, I spilled its scalding hot contents all over my arm. At first I hid from my mom, but as a huge blister formed, I had to confess and get it tended to by a doctor.
Despite such potential mishaps, it’s worth not only letting your children assist you in the kitchen, but allowing them to try cooking on their own too. More so than any other activity on this list, it’ll teach them a valuable skill towards grown-up self-sufficiency.
Drive a car
Not by themselves, mind you. Or on public streets, of course, which would be illegal. But in a big parking lot, largely free of obstacles, positioned on Dad’s lap, who can work the pedals and grab the steering wheel if needs be. From this position, a kid can experience the thrill of learning how to steer a two-tonne hunk of metal in relative safety.
Shoot a gun
Guns and kids is an understandably sensitive topic, but we’d make the case that proactively teaching your kids how to safely use firearms is the best way to teach a healthy respect for them. When they’re seven or so, introduce them to a slug-gun and begin teaching proper gun safety rules – like keeping their finger off the trigger until they’re ready to shoot and treating every weapon as if it were loaded. Set up a target (tin cans are fun) in your backyard and let them plink away while you watch.
When they reach about age 10 or 11, you can introduce them to a .22 calibre rifle. Again, this should be done under your supervision, and you should reinforce good gun-safety principles the entire time.
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