So What Do We Say If We Can’t Say Be Careful?

When supervising risky play, it’s important to avoid saying “be careful.” I know, I know. This is hard to do, it’s a phrase deeply ingrained in our brains. I’m still working on it myself! Looking through the child’s lens, hearing “be careful” is such an empty saying. Be careful with what? How? Where? When?

The question I ask myself when I’m tempted to turn to the same phrase is instead, “Do they need advice or do they need awareness?”

Awareness: When I can see a bigger picture they maybe can’t or haven’t realized yet. 

Example: 3 year old climbing an apple tree, but doesn’t know that one of the branches is dead and not as sturdy as the rest of the tree branches. 

Situation 1: I call over- “Be careful!” The child grabs the branch, the branch breaks, the child falls out of the tree. I’m frustrated because I told him to be careful, he’s frustrated because he’s still not sure why he fell out of the tree. 

Situation 2: I move slightly closer and point out things he can make himself aware of. “Look at the branch you are sitting on, it’s so full of leaves and so strong! Is that next branch up also full of leaves? How does it feel when you grab it?” Child reluctantly grabs the branch, realizes it’s dead and not sturdy, then finds a new path to climb. 

Advice: The child is attempting a task for the first time and needs advice on how to find success. 

Example: A child walking along a fallen log to cross a slow, shallow river for the first time. 

Situation 1: I call over, “Be careful!” Child gets the footing wrong, falls into the water, and everyone is upset. 

Situation 2: I step closer and offer advice and coaching on how to help my child across the log so they can still perform independently and have this learning opportunity, but by adding in the coaching I just took the task from dangerous to risky. 

It’s a tricky mind shift and it takes a lot of practice, I know this from experience! However, choosing your words carefully when engaging children in risky play will turn out to become a huge benefit in the long run. 

Here are some other phrases that can help you make this conversation shift: 


“Do you notice how….”
“How is your body feeling?”
“Is this stable or wobbly?
“If you look up, do you see what I’m seeing?”
“What’s your plan?” 
“How do you want to accomplish this?”


“When I do this activity I like to…”
“You might want to try…”
“When using this tool, a good safety feature we need to know is…”
“The rules for using xyz include…” 

Now please do not get me wrong, if your child is in immediate danger, please take all necessary steps to keep them safe. But risky play is needed developmentally and is so good for the child in the long run. It’s forever a balance between risky and dangerous play! However, I can promise you that calling out, “Be careful!” will not make the activity any less dangerous. 

What phrases do you use with your child instead of “Be careful?” 

Cover photo by Mallory Wilcox

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