Watching your child experiment and learn new skills through play is often one of the more enjoyable parts of parenting. It reminds us of our own carefree childhood and the joyful sound of your child’s laugh will resonate in your memory long after the days of toddlerhood have passed. Although this time is exciting, and often filled with joy and wonder, a toddlers lack of understanding about the world, can make it difficult for them to foresee what actions are safe and what actions are not. On top of their lack of awareness about risk or danger, they are compelled to try new things and learn about their world through trial and error. Sometimes it feels like your child is ALWAYS climbing, throwing things, climbing into things or jumping off of things. These are actually called play schemas. They are typical and each child usually fixates a bit on one or a few of the schemas, for a period of time, in their early childhood.
These schemas are an important learning strategy that children implement naturally. They often develop into “functional” skills. Many fundamental physical literacy skills are practiced through play schemas. Therefore it is important to recognize the need, and fulfill it, while still maintaining safety boundaries. A trajectory schema will have you dodging flying toys and jumping across the room to protect your child from many random jump attempts. A trajectory schema is about flying. What happens when I throw this block? What happens when I jump off this couch? What happens when I drop this bowl? Children want to see how fast, how far and how high they can make something fly. Throwing things is a popular use of the trajectory schema because children usually obtain a pretty decent throwing arm before they are able to connect a bat with a ball, kick with accuracy and power, or jump from very high. Many toddlers throw anything they can get their hands on, sometimes it’s because they are testing this trajectory schema they have discovered. Usually the easiest choice for any schema related, unwanted behaviour, is simple redirection. Your satisfying the need, while maintaining the necessary safety boundary.
If my child is throwing something unsafe around, I hand them a soft ball and say “we only throw balls.” If they happen to find a hard ball I would say “we only throw soft balls.” Then I would knock on the hard ball and squeeze the soft ball to show the difference. Then I would hand them the soft ball and put the hard ball out of sight. If you’re lucky, your child will be satisfied and happy with the new ball. That’s when you know it was really the schema and not that particular item. If they are not happy about the exchange, when you put the hard ball away, you can say something like “I know you are sad and angry that I took the hard ball away but you were not being safe. It was making me nervous when you were throwing it. I was worried someone was going to get hurt or something was going to get broken. Would you like to work together to find a safe way to play with the hard ball?” (you can use this for another toy too). Then you can show your child how to roll the ball back and forth.
There are three elements here:
- Recognize which schema is being explored. Throwing is a trajectory schema
- Find a safer option. For throwing, this can be a soft ball, rolled up socks, scarves tied up into a ball, paper balled up
- Tell your child what to do, instead of what not to do. “We only throw balls” instead of “no throwing!”
If you discover your child is not actually interested in throwing and is really more interested in the object, you can try and model for them safe ways to use the toy.
If they do throw the unsafe object a second time, I would be more firm with my boundary; “Okay, I think we need to have a break from that toy for a bit since you are struggling to play safely with it, right now. We can try again later when you’re ready to play safely.”
Now my child would start screaming “I’ll be safe! I’ll be safe!” When it comes to safety though, boundaries are important. Disappointment and frustration are feelings that everyone experiences and often our behaviour will get us into situations where we become disappointed with the outcome of a situation. Not listening to safety rules in the real world has real consequences and so does throwing a hard ball at a window or someones head. For this reason, I would not be giving a third chance, the toy would go away for a bit and I would continue to empathize with my child’s feelings, keep trying to redirect and remind them that they can have the toy back later (it’s good to specify what “later” is, even for a child who does not comprehend time).
Also, there are benefits to throwing hard items. You learn about physics (which is really at the core of the trajectory schema) and you develop physical literacy skills that are used to participate in sports that require throwing/launching hard balls (baseball, shot-put, cricket, hockey, golf, croquet). So find safe ways to practice these skills. Throw stones into a lake or sticks into a forest, away from people. Setup highly supervised, family activities that use harder items so your children can have the experience while you are close at hand to monitor for safety. Bean bags are also a great option for a heavier item that is low risk.
Empathy is probably our greatest tool as a parent (maybe even as a human being). Combine empathy with an understanding of child development and parents can begin to see how to support their children’s development while still maintaining boundaries and keeping them safe. There is almost always a way to achieve both goals and very few things in life do we get to have our cake and eat it too. Parenting fortunately is like that. With knowledge comes power but it also gives us clarity, understanding, appreciation and compassion. Try to take the time to understand what your child is working to achieve so you can support that need, without sacrificing their safety.
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