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We all want to raise strong, independent children, but it’s often a challenge to balance their independence with the need to monitor their safety. A child’s hunger for independence begins to develop as early as age 2, when most become more mobile and are able to experience, learn and understand more complex situations and emotions. From ages 3 to 5, children start to interact with more people outside of their family and spend more time in the outside world, causing their appetite for independence to ignite even more. This is the stage when most children will become more defiant about their need for independence, and it only increases as they get older.  

As a parent this can be scary, often resulting in an instinctive reaction to restrict your child’s freedom. It is possible, however, to teach your child how to be strong and independent while keeping them safe in the process. You don’t have to limit how they’re experiencing the world during their formative years in the name of safety. 

What does your child need to develop independence?

Ellen Sandseter, a Norwegian researcher and associate professor at Queen Maud University College of Early Childhood Education, completed her PhD project with a study on risky play among preschool children. A large focus of her study was on 6 categories of risky play from a child’s perspective. The following outlines the 6 categories and what she observed that children learn and need from each to gain independence:

1. Play with great heights

Most commonly involves climbing. “Benefits of this kind of play may be to get to know one’s ecology, exploring the environment and practicing and enhancing different motor/physical skills for developing muscle strength, endurance, skeletal quality, etc.”

2. Play with high speed

Swinging, running, sliding, and riding bikes at a high speed helps children enhance their perceptions of depth, movement, size and shape, and spacial-orientation. This also helps increase their physical fitness and motor competence.

3. Rough-and-tumble play

This involves risky physical play like wrestling, chasing, and play-fighting. Ultimately this helps teach children how to regulate aggressive behavior.

4. Play where the children can “disappear” / get lost

“The urge to walk off alone in new and undiscovered environments without supervision from adults is children’s way of exploring their world and becoming at home in it.” If given the chance to wander off, while still near a parent or guardian, children can experience the feeling of risk and danger. This is a very important developmental step because it immediately gives the child a feeling of independence, while also teaching them that when they encounter feelings of risk and danger they should return to a safe place.

5. Play with dangerous tools or object play

This is the hardest for parents to get behind because it has the most immediate risk associated with it. However, how does a child learn about objects or tools and their associated functions or dangers without experiencing them firsthand? This does not mean that a parent needs to give their child a knife and let them figure out how to use it on their own. The main point of this risk play category is for children to manipulate objects on their own, such as throwing or hitting them again something else.

6. Play near dangerous elements

To help a child explore environments and understand the possibilities and constraints associated with them, they need to engage in risk play near dangerous elements. Included in this is playing near bodies of water, hills/cliffs, and fire.

It may be scary, but the benefits from risky play can help your child become more independent – safely! Please note that supervising your child during risky play is still incredibly important, but it should be done in a less hands-on way.

Giving Kids More Risk Could Be Beneficial

Lev Vygotsky, a Russian psychologist, developed the Sociocultural Theory of Cognitive Development. Vygotsky’s theory focuses on the idea that children’s cognitive development flourishes more through social interaction with both the world and others who have more knowledge and skill. Basically, in order for your child to learn, assess, and manage risk, they need to be exposed to it!

With risk comes even more worry for a parent, often causing them to consistently warn their child to “be careful.” A great way to help foster safe and positive independence is in how you, as a parent, tell your child how to be careful. Simply telling a child to “be careful” does not engage their critical thinking skills to think through the situation or understand what the potential dangers are. Below is a wonderful list of examples, originally presented by the Backwoods Mama, on how to change the phrase “be careful” to more specific (and instructional) language. The idea is to get your child thinking and making positive decisions by working through it on their own!

This language will help teach your child to assess and manage risks in any potential situation before acting, while still encouraging them to explore and be independent safely. Are you still worried about your child’s safety?

That’s okay! Even with good practices in place, allowing your child to be independent is scary, which is why you can also implement some secondary measures to make sure they’re still protected.

If you’re letting your child have more independence, this might give them a little too much courage in their ability to be alone. As previously stated, children like to satisfy the urge of exploring on their own, so despite your best efforts your child might still wander away when they’re not supposed to.

To help manage this risk, try to prepare them for what could happen if they end up alone or lost. Use this guide to help navigate the conversation with your child about what to do if they end up in an unfamiliar place alone. You’ll want to cover important names and numbers, safe people to ask for help from, and pick meeting spots for locations that you frequent together.

Preparing your child to help keep them from wandering initially is key but preparing yourself is just as important. The guide also includes great information on how to act and react if your child does go missing. While the best thing you can do is try to remain calm and follow the included steps on how to locate your child on your own, staying collected in a panicked situation can be incredibly difficult.

That is where the Q5id Guardian app comes into play. A personal safeguard that lives on your phone — a parent’s first line of defense should the worst happen. If your child goes missing simply open the app, issue an alert and within seconds your surrounding community members will be alerted to help find your child. Teaching your child best practices is not always foolproof, so ease your worries by having a powerful safety tool on hand!

“The greatest gifts you can give your children are the roots of responsibility and the wings of independence.” – Dan Waitley