Allowing Your Toddler to Explore While Keeping Him Safe

Kathleen GansterCChildwise logohildwise: A column for parents of children from birth to 21

By Kathleen Ganster

Every toddler needs to explore and declare his independence, but it can cause some nervous moments for parents.

Sharna Olfman, Ph.D., professor at Point Park University, clinician, and book editor of the Childhood In America Book series (Praeger Press) gave Childwise some useful advice for parents of toddlers.

The key, she said, it to understand the developmental stage of your child.

“Toddlers are discovering selfhood. They are learning that they have their own thoughts and that these thoughts could be different from their parents,” she said.

Allowing them to explore this selfhood and their new found autonomy while being safe is the challenge.

“If you allow them to exercise age-appropriate autonomy, it can make it less tempting for them to do it in a frustrating manner,” said Olfman.

Sharna Olfman
Sharna Olfman

That could be as simple as asking your child if he wants to wear a red or blue sweater or if he wants to play inside or in your backyard, she explained.

“This allows them to express their independence in a planned method,” she said.

It is particularly temping for parents, said Olfman, to continue to do things for their child as they had been doing since birth. But the child has to learn through his own activities.

“It may be less messy to feed him instead of letting him to use a spoon or it may make you nervous for him to climb stairs, but they have to do it on their own,” she said.

Like most things in parenting, there aren’t any hard and fast rules for what you should allow a child to do when. Each child progresses at a different age, said Olfman. Knowing and understanding your child will help you make a safer house while helping your child go through the developmental steps.

“It is a bit of walking on a tightrope, keeping your child safe while allow them to explore,” she said.

Advance preparation and childproofing the home helps the parent be less stressed and passing that stress on to the child.

“It is challenging enough to be a parent and to be a toddler. If you make it safe, you aren’t spending all day running around grabbing things from your child,” she said.

It helps to make sure you child is well-rested and not hungry when they are exploring or visiting friends and relatives whenever possible, said Olfman.

“It is important to thing of the rhythm of your child’s day and keep that in mind when planning activities.”

Incorporating your child into your day and activities is also a good way to help him explore but be connected and safe.

“Put some child-size pots and pans in a lower drawer so while you are preparing dinner,  he can do activity like you and he will be less likely to seek out things that might not be safe,” she said.

And when your child engages in an activity that may be dangerous, tell him why he shouldn’t do it.

“Don’t just say ‘no.’ Describe the situation – ‘this table is too high for you to climb on,” or “cars drive very quickly down this street,” – so that he knows there is a reason he shouldn’t do something, it’s not just you using arbitrary authority,” she said.

There are many resources for learning how to childproof your home and for understanding the developmental stages of your child’s development.

Dr. Olfman recommends “The Emotional Life of the Toddler” by Alicia E. Lieberman for learning more information about the developmental stages.

Do you have a topic you want Childwise to explore? Email Kathleen Ganster at

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