It can be stressful to watch children, especially babies, navigate new play structures and climbing equipment. When a baby climbs to the top of a play structure for the first time, they may need an adult nearby to make sure they stay safe. It may feel tempting to have our hands on them the whole time, but this actually increases the risk of a serious injury later. Too much help from us makes it hard for the child to judge their own abilities and can lead to risky behavior, which we won't always be there to prevent. Children are safer when they are the ones in charge of keeping their own bodies balanced.
Here are some baby-friendly tips for spotting respectfully, inspired by Magda Gerber's Educaring® Approach (RIE®). You can see me using these techniques in the accompanying photos from my parent infant guidance classes.
1. Don't Stress!
Babies take their cues from us, so our attitude is very important. If your body language or tone of voice is anxious, you send the baby the message, "I don't think you can do it." You may be creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. Unless this is an unacceptably risky situation where you want your baby to freeze until you can scoop them up, focus on keeping your movements slow and your posture relaxed.
2. Hands Down
Keep your hands by your side, palms down. You can sit or stand close enough to catch a falling baby without creating an inviting net with your hands, and your relaxed posture will give your baby confidence.
3. Provide Information
In general, it is best to remain quiet so you don't break your baby's concentration. If you see something you want your baby to be aware of, point it out with a gentle gesture and a calm tone of voice. "This part is slippery from the rain," or "Jose is behind you."
I will also speak to a baby if it seems like they are not paying attention to what they are doing. For example, if a child is high up on my triangular climbing structure and becomes distracted by another child across the room, I might say, "You are watching Sophie bang the cars. You are at the top of the triangle."
Usually these simple pieces of information are enough to help babies navigate new risks independently.
4. Allow Losses of Balance
A loss of balance--in other words a fall--is very informative for a baby. The sudden disequilibrium tells the baby, "That was risky. I need to back off or change my strategy." Our job is not to prevent every loss of balance, it is to monitor the environment to make sure there are no challenges too dangerous for the baby to attempt. We can also help keep a child safe by spotting them and breaking the fall so they don't become injured.
5. Be a Rock
If your baby is asking for help or tries to use your body to help them stay stable while they climb, be a rock. That means keeping your own body very still and letting the baby use you for handholds. You can do this instead of holding the baby's hands, which usually means you immediately take over the job of balancing the baby. Let them be in charge of balancing and offer your shoulder or knee instead.
6. Coach a Frightened Child
Sometimes babies end up higher than they expected to be or become fatigued while climbing. They may get scared and freeze up. When a baby's body goes stiff all over and they call out to you or cry, they need help. Rather than immediately swooping in to remove them from the structure, try to help in small ways first. Often I will put my hand on the child's back briefly so they can feel that I am with them and say, "I am here. I won't let you fall."
Then I help them see where they can put their hands and feet so they can get back to the ground. I offer suggestions verbally first. If more assistance is needed, I gently guide their body back down to the ground. It takes a bit longer than a helicopter-style swoop and rescue, but it is worth it to see the relief and confidence a child feels when they understand that they can get down safely.
You can see an example of this in the two photos below. 18 month-old F climbed onto the toy shelf for the first time and immediately became scared. His body got stiff all over, and he called out for help.
First I came to sit next to him and told him what I saw. "You are up high. Do you want to come down?" I suggested he sit down, but he was too frozen with fear. Next I attempted to be his rock. I offered him my shoulder as a handhold. He showed me with his body language that my shoulder was too low and far away, so I braced my arm on the shelf so my hand could serve as a firm handhold instead.
I let him hold onto my hand without gripping his fingers or correcting his balance myself. This gave him the confidence to sit down, and then he was able to slide off the shelf.
Helping F in this way allowed him to succeed in getting to safety and reassured him that his caregivers will provide emotional and physical support when he is afraid. Not only was F relieved to get off the shelf, this experience gave him the confidence to immediately try again! He needed much less help the second time and in the future will probably not need help at all.
Infants that experience this kind of independence in their gross motor development grow up to be graceful, competent adults who can judge risk well. Trust your baby, and you will love the results!