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How 'cotton wooling' can stunt development

Senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Sunshine Coast, Rachael Sharman, said the drop in accidents at Hudson's childcare centre is mirrored in extensive research on risky play.

Giving children space to be in charge of their own play, to try and fail, can set them up for life, she said.

Dr Sharman said when a child achieves their own goals they get a hit of dopamine and create intrinsic motivation, or self-fulfilment, which can be taken into adulthood.

"We have really good quality research now … that hyper-coddling, cotton wooling of kids stunts their development … to measure their own risk, to make some sensible decisions, to move on, move forward, to basically grow up and become a useful functional human being," she said.

"When you are fearful of the child taking on some risky play, you infect them with that fear almost, increase anxiety, and they become quite risk-averse themselves … and not very resilient when they come up against challenge."

Dr Sharman said it was most important to engage in risky play when the brain was developing.

"If you don't build intrinsic motivation, you'll rely on external motivators, like money, drugs, sex," she said.

"If you leave it too late, it won't magically appear overnight on their 18th birthday.

"In fact the opposite will happen, you'll have a very fearful, fragile person and their capacity to suddenly build those skills is very much diminished."

How to encourage risky play:

  • Take a step back out of direct view, so the child doesn't look to you for reassurance

  • You could wear sunglasses to prevent the child searching for approval

  • Pause and catch yourself before calling out "be careful"

  • Give the child information to keep themselves safe, for example "that small branch might snap under your weight"

  • Know the difference between a risk and a hazard

  • If there is a hazard, step in and help


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