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Why ‘Be careful’ Doesn’t Work and 15 Phrases to try instead

why be careful doesn't work
Sian Thomas

Your pre-schooler is climbing along a fallen tree trunk. You’re nervous about it and so you shout, ‘be careful!’ Whilst it might sound like sensible advice, what does ‘be careful! really mean to a pre-schooler? And ‘be careful’ of what exactly? Falling? Splinters in the wood? Rogue creepy crawlies?

Here’s the thing, when we use phrases too often, they lose their meaning.

Your toddler is jumping off the couch – be careful!

Climbing up the slide – be careful!

Walking across a stream – be careful!

At best the phrase will be ignored and when you genuinely need your child to ‘be careful’ you will likely be ignored and worst, the phrase will make your child very nervous and fearful of trying new activities.

‘Be careful’ Can be a hard habit to break

Perhaps you’re here reading this post because  you know that you say ‘be careful’ too often. It can be such a hard habit to break, particularly when you are unaware of how many times you are saying it. I sometimes slip too and find ‘be careful’ coming out of my mouth. Here are some methods I use to break the habit myself:

  1. Mini Risk Assessment: calculate the potential risks and how you could highlight those risks to your child. There are some phrases to try further down this blog post.
  2. More exposure to ‘risk’: the more you are outside doing play that is considered risky, the more opportunities you will have to break your habit of saying be careful. You’ll also notice over time that your child will become more aware of the risks that surround them. You can always start with some smaller risks – the local playground, for example – and move on to more adventurous risks as you both gain confidence.
  3. Add on Phrase: Sometime you will notice ‘be careful’ coming out of your mouth before you even realise it. Rather than leave it there, continue on with an additional phrase from the list below. It’s perfectly okay to correct yourself!


Only interrupt and help when absolutely necessary.

During play, your interruptions act as a distraction. When your child is climbing or traversing a tricky path, think about whether your interruptions are absolutely necessary for the safety of your child.

For example, if your child is happily climbing up the climbing frame and is sure of their footing – do they really need direction from you?

Allowing your child to problem solve (which rope shall I choose next?) and get a feel for their own spatial awareness and physical awareness will help them to develop within their own capabilities.

Whilst immediately helping your child to solve a problem might seem like the right thing to do, it can result in them being placed in potential dangerous positions. Children cannot be problem solvers when we jump to fixing the problems for them.

Recently my youngest son (3) and I took a trip to the park. He wanted to be place into the little cubby halfway up the climbing frame. I refused, instead directing him to the bottom of the frame. With some focused input, he managed to reach the cubby himself. If I had simply placed him in the cubby, he would’ve had no sense of how high he was or how to get out by himself.

So when should you interrupt and help?

If your child is upset and stuck, try giving them some input first. If they are too upset to move further then of course, move in to help. Try narrating your actions as this will help guide them in the future.

Of course, if your child is in an immediately dangerous situation, you should move in to help without hesitation.

Seeing risk as good, and hazard as bad.

And we think of a risk as something that a child sees, that might be dangerous, but they can choose whether they want to take that risk or not. So if they’re balancing on a wall, they see the log, they see if I fall off, I’ll fall in the grass, or I’ll fall in the woodchips and they might not want to fall, but they can make the choice. So risk is something a child sees they choose, they can make the choice to do it or not. A hazard is something that is dangerous, but they might not see. And they’re not choosing to do it or not, or access it or not. And so that then is our job as adults, to get rid of hazards

(Rusty Keeler, play space designer and specialist in risky play)

Knowing the difference between a risk and a hazard can really help you switch your mindset around risky play and ‘being careful.’ As Rusty Keeler points out in the quote above, hazards are really the objects children cannot see. Broken glass in the park for example or exposed rusty nails that could cause an injury.

Doing a mini risk assessment to see if an area is suitable for play will help you feel more confident about your child engaging in risky play.

Dressing for Play

I can’t count the number of times we have visited a park here in the city to see immaculate children who are struggling to climb the ladder to the slide or even being dragged away from the sandpit so they don’t get dirty.

My children are very rarely in immaculate clothes. Instead they are dressed for play. Whilst dresses are cute for indoor play, when going outside my daughter is in leggings or shorts – this is so she can really get stuck into play without the risk of getting falling or getting caught in apparatus

Not only is this sensible from the perspective of preserving clothes that might be expensive, but it also helps children to play freely and without additional hazards!

be careful phrases can be minimised by ensuring your child is dressed correctly for adventurous play

15 Phrases to Try Instead of Be Careful

Here are  15 Ways to Help your Child develop Awareness of their Surroundings sourced from the Child & Nature Alliance of Canada

  1. Do you see – the splinter in the wood, the tear in the rope…
  2. Notice how – the rocks are slippery, the branch is low
  3. What’s your next move?
  4. Do you feel safe/stable/balanced here?
  5. Stay focused on what you are doing
  6. I’m here if you need me.
  7. Who can help you?
  8. What can you use to help? e.g. branch, stick etc.
  9. Can you move – your feet, hands,
  10. Rocks / Sticks Need Space!
  11. Do you need more space? Find more space- to throw that rock, to swing that stick…
  12. Please move slowly and careful near – the animals, the wet rocks…
  13. Let’s check that (cave, log, rock…) to see if it’s safe.
  14. That (rock, stick) looks heavy, do you need some more space?
  15. Before you throw that (stick, pebble…) what do you need to look out for?



Find out more about the Playful Days at Home Toolkit

If you enjoyed this post and want to make outdoor play part of your everyday, check out the Playful Days at Home Toolkit which is designed to help you introduce a playful, gentle daily rhythm as part of your everyday at home with toddlers and pre-schoolers.

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