When Is Your Kid Ready?

Using power tools, lighting candles, walking home from school alone find out how to when it&s (generally!) safe for kids to try new challenges
By Elizabeth Foy Larsen
Mar 17, 2015

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Mar 17, 2015

Keeping my kids safe was a major part of my job description when they were little. But as they grew, my mama bear instincts didn’t ease up. I spotted them when they were on the monkey bars, despite the fact that they could swing with the ease of gibbons, and poked my head out the front door like a cuckoo in a clock whenever they played in the front yard.

Given my tendency to fret, I’m still amazed that my husband and I chose to send our children to a Montessori preschool, with its emphasis on teaching kids to master grown-up tasks like operating a toaster oven. But when I saw my then 4-year-old son, Peter, sigh with satisfaction after hammering a nail, I knew I needed to put my fears aside.

That experience sparked a passion for encouraging my kids to explore. Much of what I learned ended up in Unbored: The Essential Field Guide to Serious Fun, a family activity book that I co-authored. The response to that book has convinced me that parents don’t want their kids to be overprotected. It’s just that in a culture of balance bikes and kid trackers we’ve lost some of our ability to distinguish ordinary childhood risks from true danger.

Experts agree that our good intentions may not be doing our children any favors. “Taking healthy risks is a rich opportunity for discovering how the world works,” explains Mariana Brussoni, Ph.D., an assistant professor at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. “For example, if your child is riding a bicycle on wet pavement, she’ll fnd out that rounding a corner too quickly will make her slip, so she needs to adjust her habits.”

In fact, Dr. Brussoni’s research shows that risky play teaches kids to problem-solve and plan ahead. It’s also safer than we think. “Kids who are taught how to properly use potentially dangerous things such as knives and tools when they’re young actually learn how to approach them with more caution and respect,” says Gever Tulley, the founder of Brightworks, a school in San Francisco where children build things using electric saws and power drills. Kids also gain confidence from being entrusted with “adult” chores, says Molly O’Shaughnessy, the executive director at the Montessori Center of Minnesota.

PLUS: HOW TO FOSTER INDEPENDENCE

With that in mind, we’ve devised a list of activities kids can try with your supervision — and provided guidelines for how to tell if your child has the maturity she needs to take on each challenge. While these projects are grouped according to age, there are no hard rules when it comes to encouraging your budding risk-taker. For example, a kid who’s grown up hiking on rugged terrain may be ready to climb trees at a younger age than one who’s just used to the local playground. But no matter how mature your kids are, keep safety in mind: Make sure they have the right gear and explain that adults must always be present as they tackle these activities.

3- to 5-year-olds can…
Use a knife
Cutting soft foods (think hard-boiled eggs) with a butter knife helps preschoolers hone the fine-motor skills they need to write or draw.

When they’re ready
If your child is capable of spreading butter or jam on toast, he can handle slicing a banana.

Start ‘em off
There’s no risk of a nick with a butter knife, but lay down safety habits now: Teach your preschooler that the hand holding the food should be shaped like a claw, with the fingers rolled underneath to protect them.

Build on it
When your child is adept at cutting pickles and the like, he can graduate to chopping carrots and celery with a sharper blade.

Keep in mind
Your paring knives should always be sharpened — dull blades are more dangerous because they can slip.

Light candles
All flames are capable of causing damage. Observing how fire behaves gives kids the chance to understand and respect its power, explains Tulley.

When they’re ready
If your child says, “Let me try” as you reach for the matches, seize the moment, says Dr. Brussoni. Guide her hand as you strike the match and light the candles. If she’s able to hold the match steady, she can try it alone.

Start ‘em off
Use wooden, 3-inch matchsticks, which are sturdier and burn more slowly than paper matches, and teach your child to strike them away from her face and body. Dropping the match in a cup of water is also safer than blowing it out.

Keep in mind
Kids who are very fidgety aren’t ready for this activity. And no matter how old your child is, lock away matches when you’re done using them to prevent experiments when you aren’t around.

Build on it
Older school–age kids can make and light fires in a fireplace. In the process they learn about intake, combustion, and exhaust — the three components that make fire possible. Because fires produce smoke and carbon monoxide, make them only in well-ventilated areas. Keep buckets of water nearby to douse the fames.

PLUS: HELP WITH TOUGH PARENTING CHOICES

Iron linens
Knowing how to press his clothes and other fabrics makes a kid feel useful. Plus, he practices the fine-motor skills he needs for activities that require lots of precision — tying shoes, say, or sewing buttons.

When they’re ready
Kids need to know how to avoid getting tangled in cords or knocking over the ironing board.

Start ‘em off
Set your kid up with a small travel iron and travel ironing board if your regular one doesn’t adjust to his height. Begin with napkins or other flat linens — they are less tricky to maneuver than clothing. With the appliance on the lowest setting, tell your child to hold down the cloth with his free hand, making sure he keeps it at least several inches away from the iron.

Keep in mind
To avoid scorched fabrics, your child must move the iron back and forth constantly. When he’s done, he needs to rest the appliance on its heel, not face down.

Build on it
Once he’s a pro at napkins, let him iron kid-sized clothes — his own or a sibling’s.

6- to 7-year-olds can…
Cook a meal
Food prep is a great fix for picky eaters. Researchers at Teachers College at Columbia University in New York City found that kids who make meals are more likely to eat them (and even ask for seconds).

When they’re ready
Your child needs to know how to read and measure and be able to wash her hands without being nagged repeatedly.

Start ‘em off
Together choose a dish that’s fairly easy and doesn’t involve a lot of slicing and dicing: Homemade mac and cheese is a good pick. Go through the fridge and pantry to see which ingredients you already have. Then shop for the rest as a team.

Keep in mind
Sidestep scalds and other preventable accidents by using kid-sized potholders and baking ware, stirring with wooden spoons, and checking that pot handles are turned toward the back of the stove.

Build on it
To hone math skills, look for recipes that can be doubled or halved.

Climb trees
Kids who play outside in natural settings have better balance and agility than those who only hang out in playgrounds, researchers have found. The reason: Children have to be super-aware of where they’re putting their hands and feet so that they don’t fall.

When they’re ready
While younger kids can clamber up a low branch or two, kids this age can tackle the whole tree.

Start ‘em off
Tree Climbing Planet, a climbing school based in Oregon, recommends picking a healthy tree with ladder-like branches that shoot out instead of up — if the first branch isn’t easy for your child to reach, the tree is too tall. Teach kids to always place their feet and hands near the trunk — the strongest part of the branch — and to make sure they only grasp a branch if it’s thicker than their wrists and has leaves, which means it’s alive and more likely to support their body weight.

Keep in mind
The tree should be clear of power lines, nests, or beehives — and the weather free of storm warnings. Most kids will ascend as high as they feel is safe to get back down, so if yours is reluctant to keep going, stop, says Dr. Brussoni. Also check what’s below the tree: Mulch and grass can cushion a fall better than hard-packed dirt.

Build on it
Scale new heights! Some state parks host or offer tree-climbing clinics for the entire family.

PLUS: HOW TO RAISE A KID WITH GRIT

8- to 10-year-olds can…
Use power tools
Mastering tools like cordless electric drills, sanders, and sabre saws is a huge boost for a tween’s budding sense of independence. “Kids are also using math, spatial reasoning, and architectural skills when they design and build stuff,” says Ken Denmead, a civil engineer and the author of the GeekDad series of books.

When they’re ready
As soon as they are able to follow multi-step directions and are strong enough to hold the tool steady when it’s operating, suggests Denmead. Don’t proceed if your kid goofs off or daydreams while you demonstrate the safe ways to handle power tools.

Start ‘em off
A simple project for newbies: Using a cordless drill to hang coat hooks. Train your child how to use the tool safely. (Many companies put their instructional videos on YouTube, so you can watch together.) Also ask questions that help him think critically about his work. “Kids need to evaluate their projects,” says Tulley. “Turn a question like ‘Did I do it right?’ into ‘Does it look right to you?’”

Keep in mind
Kids must always wear safety goggles and gloves and tuck in loose clothing while they work. Make sure your child carries tools with bits and blades pointed down and away from his body.

Build on it
Budding carpenters can move on from hanging coat hooks to building bookshelves, forts, and play houses, as well as wooden storage crates.

Go solo
In Japan, children begin walking to school without their parents in first grade. That’s a good thing: Exercising before class helps students concentrate. Besides honing a sense of direction, walking alone helps kids become familiar with their surroundings. “Kids get to know their neighborhood and the neighborhood gets to know them,” says Lenore Skenazy, author of Free-Range Kids.

When they’re ready
If your child shows good judgment about crossing the street, knows not to head off with strangers, and can ask for help, she’s probably ready to venture out alone, or at least with a few pals.

Start ‘em off
Practice walking or riding the route several times together, and point out landmarks along the way.

Keep in mind
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends kids go solo at age 10; by that age most have the maturity to know what to do in emergencies. Some school districts also have age restrictions, so check with your child’s school.

Build on it
Have your kid run errands, either on foot or by taking public transportation. That’s what I did with my son Peter, who enjoyed his newfound independence so much that he asked for more responsibility. Last summer, when he was 15, he few to Munich by himself, which required a transfer in Iceland. I knew he could do it — he’d begged me to let him go. And while I was excited for him to have such an adventure, that doesn’t mean I wasn’t absolutely relieved when he texted me that he’d arrived safely.

Photo Credit: Aaron Dyer

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