No one wants to set up their child for failure or put them at risk. It can be scary and feel counterproductive to let your child fall when they are playing. We want play to be fun and engaging, so how can falling promote that fun? Here are some of the many ways to set up play environments and interact with your child in ways that will let them fall safely and also learn to fall less.
What can I do to make our play space safe for falls?
One strategy is having a soft ground to fall onto. This can be with floor foam squares, a padded mat or a couple of comforters or blankets laid on the ground. This will help to abate the impact when a child is falling. You can use pillows, couch cushions or a boppy around a child when they are sitting to decrease the impact and also the distance that a child will fall out of sitting. Having a padded surface and soft support for your child to land after a fall helps to literally soften the blow and limit the unpleasantness of the experience. Creating open spaces for play that are clearly delineated from unsafe areas of the house can also make these practice times more comfortable for you. For example, a baby-gated area puts you in the driver's seat for determining an area of safe exploration. You can choose how much space, the compliance of the floor in that space, and what toys or furniture are within that area. This will allow for a controlled risk of falling to match your level of comfort. You can also add pool noodles around the sharp corners of coffee tables, baseboards or counters to lessen the sting from banging into those defined edges.
How do I give my child the falling sensation?
If you are right there playing with your child, you don’t need to let them fall directly onto the ground for your child to get all of the cognitive, motor planning, and strengthening benefits from falling. The crucial experience a child needs is the sensation of falling. That means, you can catch them right before they hit the ground. A child will encounter all the motor learning, balance response practice and problem solving without any of the pain from falling. They still may be shocked from the thrill of lowering out of sitting or standing, but without risk of pain or injury. So, when you notice your child falling, try and catch them at the lowest point possible to maximize the motor experience for them, and then safely lower them to the ground. We still want to let the child utilize transitional movements to get back upright afterwards to promote strengthening. Catching your child when falling in a way that promotes motor learning and cognitive growth will help to limit the falls they have in the future when you aren't around.
Does it matter how I respond to my child when they do fall?
A person's reaction to a child falling is a significant influence on how the child will respond as well. If we act shocked or scared, the child will respond the same way, and this can influence how they respond to falls in the future. However, if we choose a different response, after making sure there are no serious injuries, of course, this will help to normalize falls and minimize fear of future falls for the child. Every parent needs to decide for themselves what response works best for them. Some parents may choose to say "uh, oh" or "we all fall down;" others may reassure a child with "you are okay," and others may choose not to respond at all. The most important part of your response though, is to eliminate any shock, surprise, or over-emotional acknowledgement, which may cause a child to interpret that something bad just happened. Just as a child experiences cognitive growth from the cause-and-effect of falling, they also experience emotional growth, and we want to temper any negative emotions from falling by also controlling our responses.
There are many safe ways to protect your child during a fall without forgoing the motor problem-solving that is beneficial. As parents, we can help a child fall safely by allowing for safe areas of play, giving your child the falling sensation without actually hitting the ground and mitigating your responses to their falls. If we soften where a child lands, we decrease the likelihood of injury. If we catch a child during the fall, we can still provide the perception of falling without the injuries. When we minimize our negative responses to out child falling, it helps to promote safe falling habits and responses. Overall, when a child falls safely, they learn that leads to a decreased chance of falling in the future.