THE BIG, WILD WORLD
Don’t let the fear of stranger danger keep your little one cooped up inside – it is possible for them to safely explore the outdoors. In fact, it’s vital they do
Help your little one explore his surroundings while staying safe
The big, WILD world
From television news reports to fairytales, we’re often told the world is a very scary place for little children, with evil lurking behind every hedge. Though there’s no proof children are more likely to be hurt or kidnapped than they were 30 years ago, stranger danger is a growing concern for modern mums and dads. The fear is so real that parents are increasingly keeping their children inside. Researchers have found Aussie kids from especially safety-conscious homes spend about three hours less outdoors each week than other kids. Less than four per cent of kids are allowed unrestricted outdoor play, while five per cent don’t play outdoors at all. And, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, kids are spending less than 10 per cent of their time engaged in play that doesn’t involve electronics.
Early childhood consultant Karen Glancy says this isn’t doing anyone any favours. “One of the things we forget is that children need to be outdoors,
yet they’re spending less and less time outside than we did,” she says. As a result, children are less settled, there are more challenges with their behaviour, they’re not as fit and healthy, and they don’t have some of the skills they need at school – like risk assessment and gross motor skills.”
Isolation from the natural world compromises our kids’ physical, intellectual and emotional development, according to numerous studies. It’s linked to an increased rate of obesity and reduced self-confidence and resilience.
The problem with kids being outside, however, is they have a tendency to roam – and that’s when they can get into trouble. “The world is an interesting place, so children do get distracted,” says Karen. “It’s about curiosity and engagement, and if there’s something much more interesting over there – like a bird or dog – that’s where they want to be. They don’t have the cognitive ability to measure distance or understand risk as well as we do.”
Kids are also very trusting at an early age and have difficulty grasping the concept of stranger danger, says Karen. So we need to have their backs. But rather than scaring their socks off or locking them inside, it’s our job to teach children how to enjoy the world while staying safe. Here are some ways to do that. the right opportunities Part of staying safe is knowing what isn’t safe, and Mother Nature is a great guide. “Playing in nature provides risks they won’t encounter at home,” says Karen. “For long-term learning, kids need to take risks, assess danger, have a go and get out of their comfort zone. If they always feel safe, they’ll never learn to assess danger.”
But it’s not so much about taking risks as assessing risks. “Instead of letting them climb up a really dangerous tree, our role as parents is to have conversations and ask ‘What’s your plan here? Which are the safe branches for you to climb?’, and when they get stuck at the top, say, ‘Well, I’ll hold onto you for a minute then you can figure it out and get down’.”
Look for opportunities to discuss safety in other areas, too, such as when playing with other kids in the sandpit, reading books or watching TV or films. The endearing movie Finding Nemo is a great, non-threatening place to start. the right words As their confidence grows, along with their understanding of what safety feels like, equip your children with the words to express that. “It’s important with very young children to say ‘You look a bit worried about that’ or ‘How confident are you feeling about doing that by yourself?’,” says Karen. “So if they do feel unsafe, they can say so. Help them understand that the nervous feeling in their tummy means something is not right and they need to ask for help.”
Talking about paedophiles is not appropriate for children under the age of five, she says, especially if they’ve never experienced any harm. “What we need to talk about is how there are safe and appropriate ways for people to touch you and how it’s important to feel comfortable around others. So you might say ‘You don’t know that person very well, so instead of hugging them you might like to shake their hand’.” Give children options they can understand.
Teach children phrases like ‘I don’t feel comfortable’, ‘Don’t do that’ and ‘I don’t like the way you’re touching me’. “It’s about giving them the right language to use when they feel threatened,” she says. the right rules Just as they need rules for behaviour at home, children also need rules when heading out. While it’s your job to keep an eye on them, they too have responsibilities. “So you might say ‘You need to be able to see me all the time’ and ‘You need to stay close to me because there are lots of people here we don’t know’,” says Karen.
Children need to be constantly reminded of where the boundaries are, and the more tangible those boundaries, the better. “So at a park you might say ‘You can’t go past that fence’. It’s giving them that sense of freedom and being unsupervised without actually being unsupervised.”
the right help It only takes a minute for children to get lost, so while you’re having a minor panic attack, they need to know what to do. Getting familiar with their neighbours and local community is a good first step, as that’s where they’re most likely to wander.
In his book Last Child In The Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature Deficit
Disorder (Atlantic Books, $24.99), Richard Louv recommends reinvesting energy into your community. “Encourage your children to get to know trustworthy adults in your neighbourhood,” he says.
Point out who they might approach if they feel lost or unsafe. Just as you can’t trust everyone you know, not all strangers are dangerous either. “Don’t just tell your kids about evil; teach them about good – teach them to seek out adults who can help when they feel threatened,” he says.
Context is crucial. If you’re in a familiar setting, like your local park, you might suggest they return to your favourite bench if they get lost. Otherwise, tell them to look for a young family, a shopkeeper or someone in uniform.
Whatever you do, don’t let your fear of strangers kerb your child’s exploration of life. “Remember the lasting value of your early, idle days,” says Richard. Your little one will enjoy those experiences, too.
“Encourage your children to get to know trustworthy adults in your neighbourhood.”