I was reading a recent article in the National Post written by Barbara Kay called Send your kid to school by himself, and came across the term “physical literacy” for the first time:
There is a natural temporal window in which children learn to manage their inner fears by making decisions that combine the pleasure in taking a small risk with prudent self-protection. Call it a form of literacy: Just as hand-eye coordination, a form of physical literacy, must be learned by a specific age or it never comes naturally, taking age-appropriate risks in childhood confers greater adult confidence than a no-risk childhood.
I remembered a day after my first child was born, when a parent of older children asked me, “How is your child going to learn to walk if you keep catching him when he falls?” Many parents hover over their young children, as I was, but the process of feeling unsteady, and correcting that, is what teaches us balance.
I’m glad I was asked that question because, as I learned more about child development and worked with parents to teach their children to be more physically confident, I discovered many of those well-intentioned parents were doing some things that actually hampered this physical literacy.
Parents need to find their own balance between preventing injury and allowing their children space to grow physical abilities. Even if we are within arm’s reach of our children, they might still get hurt. Stressing about the possibility of falling isn’t helpful.
Here are seven ways we can improve our young child’s physical confidence:
Bonk-proof your house while your child is learning to walk.
Get rid of sharp-cornered furniture and remove or anchor shelving. Create a space where your child can attempt to get up, and has room to fall down, without the chance of banging his forehead on something hard on the way down.
Allow your child to test his physical boundaries.
Little ones do not usually break bones from falling from a standing position (although it is possible). Stand back from your child when he is moving around the room on his own and let him get back up on his own.
Give your child space at the playground to feel the different sensations that come from exploring on his own.
I like to observe parents when I’m at the park with my kiddos. I have noticed that mothers of three or four children will often relax on the bench with a coffee or visit with friends, while moms of one or two children will stand a foot or two away, ready to catch their children. When you watch the children whose moms are keeping tabs on them from the bench, you can see them focusing on their own movements. I notice that the children of moms nearby are focused on where their parent is.
Don’t rescue your stranded child immediately.
If your child has gone too far up the climbing structure and shrieks, “MOM! I’m stuck… HELP!!” Slowly and calmly stroll over to your child. Take time to get him thinking rationally and out of the freak-out part of his mind by trying to talk him down.
For example, you can try things like, “Well, I see a bar just below your foot so you can lower your foot until you feel it—I’ll watch to make sure that leg is going in the right spot.” When the child finds the bar, say something like, “Great! You did it—I’ll watch how you find the way down. I’m curious which route you’ll pick.” This kind of talking puts the focus on the child finding his own solutions and not relying on you to save him.
Use language that draws attention to what your child CAN do—encourage a feeling of capability.
Instead of saying things like, “Don’t do that—you’ll get hurt!” or “That’s too fast! Careful!!” be specific and neutral with your language. Try statements like, “What will happen if your tires slip out from under you—how can you keep your bike from tipping over?” This way of speaking gets the child focused on problem solving and thinking ahead.
The goal is to speak to your child in a way that makes him feel that he is either able to handle his body or will know what to do if there is a fall.
Make light of spills and minor falls.
Tipping over, falling down and banging our knees is normal when we are learning a new skill. When your screaming child runs toward you after falling, calmly ask something like this, “Was this a big fall or a little one?” Wait for his response then look for evidence of serious injury. If everything is okay, smile and try this, “Looks like you had a bonk—what were you learning to do?” (This complements the child for trying) I also like to say, “What do you need before going back to play?” (“Getting back on the horse” thinking) Often my boys will say, “Just a hug, Mommy.”
Give your child safe opportunities to test his new physical awareness.
As my two sons and I were biking home from school, my older one asked if he could go ahead on his own. I asked him this, “What you do need to remember to do that safely?” He told me about stopping and looking both ways at the streets, riding close to the side of the road, how to go around a parked car, and even what he’d do when he got home. Even though I was very nervous, I said, “It sounds like you know what you need to do to be safe. Go ahead.” I could feel my heart pounding as he rode away from me, but I knew I needed to let him do that.
Ask your child questions like the one I did to determine if your child knows what he needs to do, and what to do if he runs into trouble. If it sounds like he has covered the angles, let him go. (And breathe!)
I invite you over to my facebook page where I post free parenting resources to help you raise happy, confident children.