This week we went to Skinner's Falls, which is a gorgeous place on the Delaware river with tubing and lots of rocks and pools for frolicking and jumping off of.
Because I injured my leg recently, I was not as nimble as I usually am. Therefore, my sister did me the favor of hovering over my 3 and 2 year olds, making sure they didn't slip and fall, or climb to a place where they couldn't get down from, or step into a deep pool or too-rapid-rapids and drown. My 6yo was like a little goat, so no worries about him, and he ranged far and wide and did what was within his abilities.
People have often commented on my hands-off approach to physical exploration, which was passed down to me by my mom. My very active three little brothers were permitted to explore, travel, touch, climb, climb, climb, and climb when we were out and about. In our local daycamp, if you couldn't find my brother, counselors were instructed to look up the trees.
So I was raised that falling down, scraping yourself, bumps and bruises et al. are no big deal. This is very useful when the kids are exploring and I want them to figure out their own physical limitations. It's clear to me that allowing an infant to crawl off a table or head first down the stairs is a bad idea, and I always scooped them up before that happened, but I also turned them around to back off of things and tried to do only the minimal to help them out of a pickle, like showing them a place to put their feet instead of lifting them down if they climbed too high. It's an art, not an exact science.
So my preferred approach in a place full of slippery rocks, tall rocks, puddles, and small rapids is to give them their head and be close enough to rescue if it becomes necessary. That means let them take a step and catch them if they start to fall on the slippery rock, until they figure out how to move their feet so they don't fall, and I can leave them to it. Let them climb up and up and up, and show or verbally tell them another way to get down if they call out for me because they can't figure it out. Test out the depth of the puddles they are playing near, and if they are less than knee-deep, let them explore and watch in case their head slips under, and then wade in and yank them out. Let them collect and throw rocks and sticks, and only remind them the rule of no throwing near people if people walk by and the kids seem unaware of them.
I like to sit a far enough distance from them so that they know where to find me if they need help or reassurance or they want to come visit, but so that I'm not really involved in their play and explorations.
However, due to my injury, I was unable to keep up with their explorations to make sure they were safe enough to give them the distance I like to give them. Nor was I able to scramble over to stop possible drownings or big falls.
Had I already written this blog post, I could have given my sister specific and detailed instructions about how to supervise the boys. But, like I said, it's an art, and it's mostly intuitive.
Instead, I was just grateful that somebody was there who could watch the boys.
I did notice some differences in the way they played. With my method, the children slowly develop their physical faculties and gain a sense of their abilities and limitations. It's not outer-directed, it's inner-directed. I'm often surprised when I hear people tell children to "be careful" because from a very young age, my children train to develop a sense of their physical capabilities or face the bumps and bruises consequences. (People have made fun of me for piling behind my couch with pillows and blankets and letting my 6 month old climb where he may.) So while they start off cautious, because they know a situation can have unknowns, they quickly gain a sense of what they can and cannot do. This means that after an initial foray and assist mode, I can sit back and relax and let them figure it out, knowing that they will heed their own limitations.
This time, since my sister was hovering and helping, I noticed that they called out for her help very frequently. They climbed and got stuck and she helped them down. She held their hands. She took them across the streams. She was wonderful because I couldn't physically do those things. But it did seem that the more she helped them, the more they asked for help.
Happily, my sister was delighted to assist them. I'm lazy and I prefer them to do their educational work themselves, in all situations possible.