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

Mother & Baby (Australia) - - Contents -

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.”

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