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Why Letting Your Children Fall Safely Will Help Them Fall Less

One of the most important jobs of a parent or caregiver is to keep your children safe, especially protecting them from injuries. Falling is a vulnerable experience for children, putting them at risk for injuries, so it’s a natural reaction to want to limit these falls. Safety is always important, and preventing serious injuries, such as concussions and fractures are a priority for all children. However, the falls that a child experiences from a sitting or standing position can help them to learn, grow, play and gain motor confidence. "Safe" falling in a controlled environment has many benefits for a child's motor and cognitive learning and will actually help them to fall less in the future.

Balance Reactions

Every time a child falls, their body's balance systems are getting feedback on why that happened. Our three sensory systems that help us to stay balanced will integrate information about when our center of balance falls outside of the base of support. When that happens, we can't keep ourselves upright in sitting or standing and thus need to catch ourselves to not hit the ground. These protective reactions to maintain our balance occur in all directions: forward, to our sides and backwards, to safely play in sitting and standing. Development of these protective responses happen with practice. Children need the opportunity for controlled and safe falling for these protective balance reactions to develop and for children to independently catch themselves if they are losing their balance. If a child never gets to practice these responses, the sensory systems may be delayed in developing these protective reactions. This may delay transitional play in and out of sitting and standing due to a child’s fear that they lack the ability to keep themselves from falling.

Transitional Strengthening

Every time children fall, they have to get back up, and that provides an opportunity for strengthening through transitional movements. If a child falls from a sitting position, they will either fall backwards, onto their side or forward onto his or her stomach. To get back into sitting, they may use a variety of transitional patterns, including pulling into sitting with their arms, rolling onto their side and pushing into sitting, or pushing from their tummies into hands and knees and then sitting back down. If a child falls from a standing position, to get back up, they need to transition from whatever position they landed in. Standing up can include pulling up from a kneeling or squat position, pushing off the ground from hands and knees, or going from a squat back into standing without arm support. All of these different positional changes are the best opportunity for a child to strengthen their body, as the child's muscles maintain and attain new positions against gravity. The best opportunity for this progressional strengthening is when there is a fall, as it becomes a salient and motivating reason to transition back upright.

Cognitive Growth

Every time children fall, they are learning about the cause and effect of their actions. Whether they were walking too fast, taking too big of a step, or reaching too far from where they are sitting, each of these moments provides learning opportunities. Children's brains are learning about the mistakes of their actions when they fall. Children need to learn the limits of their bodies' ability, so the active and constructive experience they get from falling will be meaningful and long lasting. The memory of previous falls allows for comprehension of their mistakes and application of new strategies for future stepping or reaching in play. Falls promote cognitive growth by allowing for problem solving with motor exploration.

Motor Learning

Every time children fall, they get stronger, smarter and more balanced, so it doesn't have to happen again. Children's future explorations with movements are continuously influenced by prior experiences. A child may fall frequently when they are a new independent sitter or walker, but this decreases as their memories, both mental and motor, promote safe and efficient body movements. Falling provides internal and external feedback to the body on performance with a movement, which reinforces motor learning. This means the child learns through information visually, auditorily and physically, both from within their bodies and from the response of their bodies in that environment. This motor learning allows for a skill that may require lots of brain power at the beginning to be as subconscious as walking may be for you.

While it can be scary to let your children explore the house, backyard or playground, giving them safe opportunities for independence will provide cognitive and motor learning for safe and independent play. Each fall prepares the child for fewer falls in the future. Commonly, children who are taking longer to learn to walk or who have a medical diagnosis may need extra protection as they are practicing a skill, which limits the important learning they need. Children get stronger, more balanced and grow cognitively and motorically when falling, so all children, regardless of their developmental milestone speed, need those controlled falling experiences for continued motor progression.

Dr. Caroline Ubben, PT, DPT, PCS


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