"The willingness to take risks is an important characteristic of an effective learner. It can help develop a disposition to 'have a go', persist at something and see challenges as problems to enjoy rather than things to fear. Small mistakes and minor accidents can offer some protection against the negative effects of future failure. Such play can develop children's resilience and help them to cope physically and emotionally with unexpected events."
- Helen Tovey, Author and Retired Principal Lecturer in Early Childhood Studies
Over the years I have grown to appreciate the natural gross motor development of young humans in my care.
Falling down and recovering from falling have a special place in my heart. Observing young humans falling down and recovering from their fall in their daily play routine provides me with greater understanding of the characteristics that make them unique. In my experience, it also provides me with insight into the quality of human they will develop into in the future. For example, observe the photo to your left closely in which a young human is running over wood chips and through a mist of water. What do you observe his body doing? While taking photos of his exploration I observed his body preparing to fall, recover and minimize injury by extending his arms forward and looking in the direction of the fall. He is learning how to fall and recover. He is learning to get up and move forward after a setback. He is learning to trust his brain and body. Most importantly, his brain and body are communicating to do what is needed to safely fall and successfully recover. This is the reason I do not interrupt young humans as they are falling down. I do not try to catch them or save them from the fall. When a young human is falling down during his or her routine play I wait for him or her to complete the fall and then move close to offer support as needed. When a young human is falling down during routine play his or her brain is communicating with his or her body and getting the body parts ready to prepare for the fall and minimize injury. If I try to save the young human from falling down because of my own fears of injury to the young human, then I am disrupting the lines of communication between his or her brain and body. Inserting my body into this equation may harm the young human as I have introduced an unplanned element into the equation that his or her brain is not aware of as he or she is in the middle of falling. Besides, there is also the risk of injuring my own body due to sudden and unplanned movements on my part. I am of no use to the young human if I get hurt along with him or her. Please note that I am only referring to the falls experienced by young humans during routine play. As an adult we have to assess the risk and harm to the young human when deciding when to intervene and prevent a fall. For example, if your young human is standing on top of your deck's safety rails, then intervene as this type of fall will cause serious harm and injury. This is different than falling from a standing position or tumbling down a step, which can still cause minor injuries and pain but not serious harm or injury. So, assess the risk and harm to the young human and yourself before intervening. I know I do. Moreover, falling is losing your balance and learning to balance is a skill that young humans need to develop over time on their own. Balance cannot be taught.
Falling and recovering from the fall starts very early in life. For example, observe the photo to your right in which a young human is falling down from a sitting position. As she falls down her left hand and foot are in position to break her fall all by herself. If you pay close attention to her face, her feelings are clear in the emotions she is expressing on her face. She continued her fall and flipped to her belly immediately. She then paused, turned her head around and looked as if to assess her new body position and the event that had just occurred. Afterwards, she completed her recovery by sitting upright without support. She did not cry during this whole sequence of events. She made different types of sounds from her mouth instead. I did not need to intervene as my own risk assessment of her fall told me that she was in no harm by falling down from a sitting position on the floor. I anticipated her needing support from me after the fall and so I moved slowly closer to her. She is learning how to fall and recover. In this example, after she recovered I said, "You fell down. That must have been surprising." I waited for her response. She looked in my direction and vocalized. I continued by saying, "You did it! You lost your balance and recovered all on your own!" and smiled. She continued her play while in a sitting position. Note that I did not reinforce the victim mentally by saying, "My poor baby. Let me hug you and make you feel better." Saying this sends the message that the young human cannot successfully recover and that an adult is needed to make it all go away. Instead I allowed her to self-regulate and for her to be a part of the solution. Reflecting on what happened also helps with showing empathy. In addition, I did not say "You're okay" because she is not "okay" as she just now fell down. This is important if your young human is crying. Never say "You're okay" as from his or her perspective your young human is not okay and that is why he or she is crying. Telling your young human that they are okay while they feel they are not sends them the message that what they are feeling and expressing are not valid and true. Instead you are sending the message that you as an adult with more power over the young human knows how he or she is feeling at that given moment in time. When you as an adult dictates how the young human is feeling it invalidates his or her actual feelings. Trust that the young human knows his or her body well.
During my practice over the years, I have mastered the art of responding to a young human instead of reacting to a young human. For example, let us consider the sequence of photos of a young human falling down from a sitting position above. When you react, you run quickly and scoop up the young human. This may startle the young human and rob the young human of the opportunity to problem-solve. Reacting also robs you, the caregiver, the opportunity to observe and find joy in the abilities of a young human. When you respond, you stay calm, you observe, move slowly closer to the young human, wait until the young human is ready to hear you and reflect on his or her situation by saying "You lost your balance and fell down" in a matter-of-fact tone of voice. This will take intentional practice on your part as it did for me.
Check your readiness for embracing the thoughts I have expressed above. Here is a video I took of an infant climbing down a long set of stairs. Start by watching the video below with sound.
Now, watch it again without sound if you need to. Watch it as many times as you need. Continue reading after you have reflected on the five questions below:
1. What was beneficial to the young human in this video?
2. What was beneficial to the caregiver (me) in this video?
3. What was the young human in this video communicating to the caregiver (me)?
4. What was the caregiver (me) communicating to the young human in this video?
5. How did this video make you feel?
Now let me share my thoughts regarding the questions above.
1. It was beneficial to the young human to be given time and space to climb down the stairs. It was beneficial to the young human to be given time to cry and express her emotions until she was done. Not on my own timeline but hers. Fast forwarding to the present time, at the age of eleven months old, this particular infant is able to assess risks appropriately during climbing experiences and navigate climbing with expertise that is developmentally appropriate.
2. It was beneficial to me to understand that it was important to learn how to fall and recover which meant I did not feel the pressure to hover over the infant every step of the way. I was able to stand and observe peacefully. Based on my relationship with this infant, I understood this infant's abilities.
3. When the young human cried she was communicating that she had just bumped her head on the step. She was telling me that bumping her head felt unpleasant and that she needed to stop for a moment before continuing to climb down.
4. The caregiver was communicating to the infant that she trusted the infant to navigate the steps and complete the task all on her own. The caregiver was communicating to the infant that she respects the infant to not interfere with her exploration of the stairs and her communication through crying.
5. When I took this video I was calm and focused on the observations of the infant's movements down the stairs. Fear is learned. Therefore, I continuously assessed the risk and stayed calm intentionally as I did not want to teach her to fear the calculated risk she was taking. While I was taking the video I focused on the movements of the infant climbing down the stairs and enjoyed it. Even though I felt anxious I knew my ethical responsibility towards the young human was to do no harm by hindering her exploration of the stairs based on her interest. Base your decisions on sensitive observations of the young human and combining it with your ethical responsibility towards the young human. Yes, early childhood educators are bound by a code of ethical conduct created by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (see additional resources section below for more information). As someone caring for a young human you must understand who you are as a human. For example, it is important to reflect on questions such as: What are your fears? What is your propensity to take risks? What is your comfort level in assessing risks? What is your attitude towards learning through taking risks? How far will you go alongside your young human to take risks? Critically looking inwards at yourself as a human is rewarding and beneficial to you and the young human who is modeling after you. They are learning about this world through you.
In conclusion, it is important to understand that young humans learn how to fall safely and recover successfully from a very early age if given the opportunity to experience this in a planned and familiar environment. Make sure you keep your own fears in check, assess the situation and if no harm will befall the young human, allow them to fall and recover in the safety of a planned and familiar environment. Learning how to fall safely and recover successfully is a healthy way for your young human to learn to be a part of the solutions to life's problems.
1. Book: Your Self-Confident Baby by Magda Gerber and Allison Johnson
2. Website: National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) Code of Ethical Conduct for Early Childhood Educators.
3. Book: Playing Outdoors: Spaces and Places, Risks and Challenge (Debating Play) 1st Edition by Helen Tovey
4. Article: The Role of Risk in Play and Learning by Joan Almon