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July 16, 2006 10:27 PM   Subscribe

Toddler capabilities. What are 14- to 18-months old capable of doing with regard to physical safety?

I probably haven't worded the question above very well, so I will attempt to explain what I'm getting at.

I'm the parent of a 17-month-old and I seem to be at odds with some of the other parents of children my child's age. I am not generally concerned with how other people parent and I respect their right to choose. However, I have been surprised by some of the decisions made by other parents and the statements they have made in support of those decisions. For example, some of the parents I know allow their 15- to 17-month-old children to go on stairs, 3 to 5 foot high open-sided playground equipment designed for children over 5, park benches, short concrete walls, gym benches, slides, and other structures without assistance. The parents will sometimes be 5 to 10 feet away or, in the case of playground equipment, will be several arms' lengths away.

I know that there are many parenting styles and that it's appropriate to parent according to your child's needs. I'm not a perfect parent and I don't expect that of other people. However, some other people have approached me about one child's safety and I became a little more concerned, too, after that child fell down stairs, off playground equipment, etc.

Are children in this age rage mentally capable of being safe in these situations? It seems to me that playground equipment designed for children over 5 is a bit of a giveaway. And I would have thought people would think the equipment for children under 5 means that it is not automatically safe for any child under that age. However, other parents say that falling and navigating equipment is a natural part of learning and that holding your child's hand or going up on the equipment with them equates to hovering and will have lifelong repercussions in terms of the child's ability to take risks. They talk about their child's ability to assess danger and mitigate risks.

(Note that I'm not worried about kids walking along and tripping over their own feet on the ground. I guess I'm interested in climbing and structures.)

Are there any studies or sites that indicate what *most* children in this age range can safely manage? Are children this age generally in possession of cognitive abilities that allow them to understand and manage these kinds of danger? I'd be interested in learning what injury happens to the child's brain when they fall down stairs or off a bench, but I am probably veering off topic. I suppose I'm generally interested in learning about safety guidelines for this age group, along with any studies that point to how that appropriateness was determined.

I'm not meaning this as an attack on other parents or parenting styles. I just would like to know about guidelines and actual readiness for these kinds of risks. Everything in life is risk, of course!
posted by acoutu to Science & Nature (17 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Toddlers are called "toddlers" for that reason... their motor coordination is not fine-tuned, and they can certainly get theirselves into very dangerous situations. It's worth considering that all it takes is getting whacked or twisted in the right spot to knock out teeth or end up with a greenstick fracture.

My son is 2 1/2 years old and an excellent climber. I help him on the playground equipment, however he HAS slipped twice while climbing. He would have fallen and gotten beat up within the metal bars if I hadn't been caught him. He's now at the point where I can explain important safety advice to him, show him things that might injure him, and remind him to hold on as he works himself out, which helps a lot. We're all getting much more confident in his abilities.

I concede that unsupervised kids take a lot more beatings and probably learn their limits a little quicker, but still, why risk the emergency room? Plus when you're right alongside them it helps you both bond a little better.
posted by rolypolyman at 10:53 PM on July 16, 2006

Both my kids (4 & 2) are great climbers and managed playground equipment, etc., at a fairly early age. We didn't stand away from them at 18 months, but we also never told them they couldn't do things, or that they'd hurt themselves - we just said 'hold tight'. As you'd expect, I did have to make a couple of saving catches from the top rung of the ladder.

Stair-gates went away at just before 2 for both of them.

Key factors for me are:
* don't freak your kids out as my wife and I were freaked out (we both had nervy parents telling us we'd break our necks if we ever even walked on a wall)
* don't be the hat police. We still have angry memories of people who have come over in the past and implied they could parent our kids better than we could.
posted by athenian at 11:46 PM on July 16, 2006

Our son is overly cautious. To the point where he did not start to walk until 15 months or so, practiced for about 4 months before it. He doesn't fall, bump or those things like all his mates do. He never has bruises on the legs or knees either. He refuses to do something he feels he can't do (ie, practice for 50 billion times first) so over time, he's built up my trust in him. Now he's hmm 2 years and 10 months, and has no issues at the play ground, but still doesn't do somethings he doesn't want to do. Earlier, I was always around if it was a (very) rare day of experimenting.

I know what you mean about different people's parenting... sometimes it is weird. But they might have had trust built up as well.

I have always considered playgrounds and being around other kids a way to "get hurt in a controlled environment". It appears to be how humans learn, as long as it's never a risk of anything serious.

Luckily I have never been in a situation where I feel they are being negligent.
posted by lundman at 1:09 AM on July 17, 2006

I've seen tremendous variation even with just my two kids. The older one was very cautious and liked to be sure she could do something before she'd try it. The younger one (now 19 months) will try pretty much anything.

She can certainly climb up a climbing frame, and I let her do it solo on the one in our garden. In a playground, I'd stay close at this age because she's likely to freeze if she gets into trouble and need rescuing. She can climb up stairs confidently, but she won't climb down a flight - she can get down a single step by turning round and letting herself down feet first. That said, I don't let her go upstairs unless I'm following behind.

One thing I would say is that once you've done what you reasonably can, you just have to accept that your kid probably will have a nasty tumble at some point (ours just fell off our bed onto a wood floor the other day). 99 times out of 100, they're fine. It happens, and kids are designed fairly robustly.
posted by crocomancer at 4:10 AM on July 17, 2006

A classic book about child development might give you some age-based behavioral parameters: Your One-Year Old: 12 to 24 months, published in 1983 by the Gesell Institute of Child Development.
posted by Carol Anne at 5:36 AM on July 17, 2006

Not a parent. But I sort of suspect that, at that age, they're probably not quite yet equipped to be developing cognitive responses to the whole hovering thing: in my understanding, "hovering" is more a 13 and up issue.

In short, I don't think you're being unreasonable in your choices at all, myself.
posted by baylink at 7:11 AM on July 17, 2006

Just trust your parenting judgement. My 2.5 year old loves to climb the playground equipment, but he's still not quite stable enough yet. I still spot him when he climbs stuff.
posted by fcain at 7:21 AM on July 17, 2006

Why? Are you wondering if you're being over protective? Are you wondeing if the other parents are being negligent? Are you planning to educate the other parents on what you find?
posted by raedyn at 7:38 AM on July 17, 2006

As the parent of a 3 1/2-year-old, I can tell you that hovering, hand-holding and forbidding climbing is more dangerous than (mostly) leaving them on their own. They're toddlers, yes. They can't account for things like the back of the recliner suddenly reclining on them. But on stable surfaces they're (usually) surprisingly canny in their readings and stable when they want to be.

Plus: They weigh 15-20 pounds. If a toddler falls from three feet, there really isn't much force involved. As Stephen Jay Gould explained:

Kinetic energy, in some situations, increases as length raised to the fifth power. If a child half your height falls down, its head will hit with not half, but only 1/32 the energy of yours in a similar fall. A child is protected more by its size than by its "soft" head.

You noted that one child has been falling a lot. Has that child gotten hurt? It's not impossible, but falling at this age is not the huge problem it looks like.
posted by argybarg at 7:51 AM on July 17, 2006

I found that with my oldest 3 children, I was more relaxed with each one ie my first couldn't walk up or down the stairs by himself until he was almost 2 and a half, the 3rd one was running around by herself at 18 months. Now that my baby is 3, I was pretty protective again. He's always been very advanced in large motor skills and was walking at 9 months and climbing stairs alternating feet at 12 months. We took the stair gates down at 2 years old and let him pretty much run wherever he wants at the playground. We're never very far and he's only fallen once. I think it probably has more to do with the individual child than with the parenting style.
posted by hollygoheavy at 8:15 AM on July 17, 2006

Just trust your parenting judgement.

What fcain said bears repeating. I also have a 17-month old son. As it happens, he's very adventurous, but also pretty coordinated (and, of course, perfect in all other ways as well!). He runs around on his own in the age-appropriate playground and climbs up the mini-slides and such. I might well be 5 feet away while he does that -- watching, but also letting him figure things out. Other kids may have reached different milestones by 17-months -- maybe they aren't climbers, for example, or they aren't as stable on their feet -- so maybe their parents want to be closer. There is enormous variability (in my limited playground experience) at that age. Also, we have a little terrier at home, so the kid is used to being knocked over and nothing much seems to faze him. It's about the particular kid and the particular parent and although there are rules of common sense (don't let him wander unattended near high ledges, stuff like that) a lot of it comes down to your style.

It's possible, however, that your question is not "what's okay for my kid" but "what should I do about these other parents". There, my answer is different. As my father-in-law says, the lost 11th Commandment is "Thou Shalt Butt Out."

My kid often has skinned knees and I get evil looks for that sometimes. He has a tan, too and I get evil looks for that as well. ("He needs a hat!" "Shut UP lady, he won't wear a hat! You need a paper bag over your head, but you don't hear me telling you that.") Make your choices and be comfortable with them -- for my wife and me, the only rule is (except in extreme situations) your choices are yours and it's best to leave others to make their own choices, even if you consider them mistakes, in the absence of real and immediate danger.

P.S. Of course, if you spot something that the parent has missed a helpful, non-judgmental mention -- "he's eating sand" or "he dropped a shoe" -- is not amiss, IMHO.
posted by The Bellman at 8:22 AM on July 17, 2006 [1 favorite]

And, of course, the other thing to remember, quoted from Tom Clancy, because I like his trauma surgeon character's phrasing best "What we say about young kids breaking things: 'if all the bones are in the same room, it'll heal'."
posted by baylink at 8:40 AM on July 17, 2006

This takes me back to when my daughter was that age. She was quite adventurous and relatively coordinated, so I tended to stand back and let her do her thing as long as there was no risk of serious injury (broken bones or concussions). She could easily climb up the 3 or 4 steps necessary to come down the little slide. But other parents seemed kind of horrified by this and would come up to her and take her hand. If she fell, I'd give her a few beats just to see if she was going to shake it off or not, and invariably someone would come in with a "Oh no! Are you OK?!?" which is a surefire cue for tears.

The thing is, even though I wasn't holding her hand constantly, I knew exactly what was going on and could swoop in if she got in trouble. I knew that she had a pretty high tolerance for skinned-knees and bruises and that over-reacting to a tumble would upset her. I'm sure to outsiders I looked kind of negligent, but I was just being the kind of parent my kind of kid needed.
posted by jrossi4r at 10:33 AM on July 17, 2006

Response by poster: Thanks for all the feedback. I am not looking to police other parents.

When I say falls, I mean tumbling head over heels, cracking the head or face against concrete and the like, not little slips or trips or things like that.

I am also not looking for information on parenting styles and philosophies. I respect other parents decisions about what is appropriate for their children.

I just wanted to know if there were safety guidelines and research to indicate what is generally shown (by research) to be appropriate for most children at this age level, given cognitive and maybe physical development milestones. This is for my own personal interest and it may influence how I parent. But it is not my place to police other families. I am also not looking to feel superior or anything along those lines. I just happen to be someone who likes to review research.

(Apostrophe and other keys are suddenly not working on my keyboard. Please excuse any typos.)
posted by acoutu at 1:28 PM on July 17, 2006

An added note about playgrounds and little ones... playgrounds usually have sand or wood chips underneath, which are even softer than grass, so that's another reason it's not such a horrible thing to let little ones on playground equipment. Also, if there's an older sibling or neighbor child (old enough not to be reckless with the toddler), they might even help the toddler.
posted by IndigoRain at 5:33 PM on July 17, 2006

It's very much an individual thing -- both you as an individual parent and your little one as an individual child. We always took what I regarded as a reasonably hands-off approach: we'd stay close as long as we needed to, hang on only if necessary. Both boys survived several small-to-medium toddler traumas, but both have grown older being physically confident and active. You just need to spend the time with them so both of you can discover their limits and your comfort level with those limits.
posted by lhauser at 10:36 PM on July 17, 2006

Response by poster: I managed to find some information on playground design. The guidelines (on various sites) basically say that playgrounds are more geared to children over 2.

These playground guidelines say the following are NOT recommended for preschoolers, let alone toddlers:
• Chain or Cable Walks
• Free Standing Arch Climbers
• Free Standing Climbing Events with Flexible
• Fulcrum Seesaws
• Log Rolls
• Long Spiral Slides (more than one turn — 360°)
• Overhead Rings
• Parallel Bars
• Swinging Gates
• Track Rides
• Vertical Sliding Poles

I also found some good info here.

This page says:

"Children who are younger than the age 5 may not have the upper body strength necessary for climbing and should only be allowed to climb on age-appropriate equipment. Preschoolers should only climb 5 feet (1.6 m) high and school-age children should only climb 7 feet (2.3 m) high".

None of these sources covers toddlers. It's all about preschoolers. Does this mean playgrounds are not considered safe for toddlers?

I've focused on playgrounds here, but, really, I'm just interested in general safety and how it relates to cognitive/physical development in toddlers. There seems to be a lot more info for preschoolers, but that's not what I want.
posted by acoutu at 10:51 PM on July 17, 2006

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