When You Want to Say, “Be Careful!”

by Petra Eperjesi, Manager of National Programs

“Be careful!”

Saying (shouting) that can be such a knee-jerk reaction when we see kids doing something that we perceive as dangerous. Just today, as a group of students moved further away from us and towards the edge of a big, rocky slope, three adults began to shout it, almost in unison. Sometimes there is real reason for alarm. Sometimes there isn’t. Working out the difference between the two is itself a subject for another blog post (or five).

But whether or not there is a high risk of injury at a given moment, what do we even mean when we say “Be Careful!”? It can mean, “I’m not sure what’s over there, please wait for me to come have a closer look with you”, or it can mean “slow down and watch where you’re putting your feet” when someone is running on uneven, unstable ground. It can mean, “move farther away from those other kids before you throw that rock!” or it can mean “focus on what you’re doing” when a child is making their way back down a tree.

In short, “Be careful!” can mean so much, but without the specific details, it can also be meaningless. (And when we hear something over and over and over again, we all start to tune out, don’t we?)


Here, some ideas about what we might say instead of (or in addition to) “Be Careful!”, organized  according to Ellen Sandseter’s 6 categories of risky play:

Play with Great Heights (i.e. tree climbing)

  • “Stay focused on what you’re doing.”
  • “What is your next move?”
  • “Do you feel safe there?”
  • “Take your time.”
  • “Does that branch feel strong and stable?”
  • “I’m here if you need me.”


Play with Great Speeds (i.e. tag)

I usually find that it’s not so much the speed that gets my inner alarm bell going as what/who might be tripped over or crashed into! So, I often find myself pausing play at great speeds to say:


  • “Please find a safe spot for your stick while you’re running.”
  • “I’ve noticed that this is a really busy area and I’m worried that someone not playing this game might get knocked over. Watch out for other people and give them lots of space.” Or, “Let’s move to this lower-traffic zone.”
  • “I’ve noticed that there are a lot of fallen trees and sticks to trip on here. Watch out!” or, “Should we move this game to a more open area?”

Play with Harmful Tools

It’s important to know your students really well, to have a designated tool zone in a low-traffic area, and to take things like time of day and general energy of your group into consideration before introducing tools like knives or saws to with your students. But even things like rocks and sticks can be considered potentially harmful tools. We often say:


  • “Sticks need space. Mike, please back up from Sarah. She’s holding a big stick!”
  • “Sticks need space. Sarah, look around you – do you have enough space to swing that big stick?”
  • “Please keep one end of your stick on the ground!”
  • “What’s your plan with that big stick?”
  • “Rocks need space!”
  • “Find more space!”
  • “Before you throw that rock, what do you need to look for?”
  • “That rock looks really heavy! Can you manage it?”


Play near Dangerous Elements (i.e. water, fire, ice)

I think it is important to front load a lot of the conversation about how to be safe around a dangerous element, before kids are near that dangerous element. Then the following phrases are more reminders and references to that initial, very focused conversation:


  • “Please move slowly and carefully near the ___.”
  • “Please give each other lots of space so that no one feels like they need to push, and no one gets knocked over by accident.”
  • “Do you feel stable/balanced?”
  • “Do you need more space?”


Rough and Tumble Play

It took me some time, but I’ve come to see Rough and Tumble Play as a rich and authentic opportunity to learn about consent. I’ve found it helpful to pause the wrestling and say:


  • “Make eye contact before you tackle someone. Make sure they know you are coming so that they can get their body ready.”
  • “Check in with each other. Make sure everyone is still having a good time.”
  • “Ask her if she’s ok.”
  • “Ask him if he’s still having fun.”
  • “Did you like that? Make sure you tell her if you didn’t like that.”


Play where children can “disappear”/get lost

This is a trickier one for us, as we do ask children to stay where we can see them, so that we know if they need help. But kids do so often want to hide, or find “shortcuts”, and there are lots of ways to make that possible and safe. This has to do with due diligence – knowing our setting inside and out, knowing where poison ivy and ponds are, never taking children to places that are totally unfamiliar to us, etc. Sometimes it’s possible for kids to feel like they’re lost or that they’ve disappeared, without them being that way in truth. Here are some ways to facilitate that feeling of being unseen for a while:


  • “If you need to run, meet me at the next trail marker!”
  • “Let’s check this cave/fort to make sure it’s safe to hide in.”


Sometimes intervening verbally as in the ways suggested above still doesn’t calm that gut feeling that something is too risky. Stay tuned for a future blog post about dynamically assessing risk, and including children in that process…

Join the discussion 15 Comments

  • […] reunidas y traducidas libremente de varias páginas en inglés, con pequeñas modificaciones: Child & Nature Alliance of Canada, Easter Seals DuPage & Fox Valley, Teacher Tom, Wildtots, Visible Child: Respectful/Mindful […]

  • […] or tree climbing we can both calm our fears and instill confidence in them. A blog post on Child Alliance and Nature of Canada’s website has some really helpful suggestions for a variety of situations, such […]

  • Connie Weinstock says:

    I agree with your philosophy an the suggestions of words to use. I am interested in reading more of your suggestions.

    • Nate Schumacher says:

      Saw as posted Facebook. This is Great! Would change play with harmful tools title to Play with natural objects. Rocks and sticks have no intent. I will use these prompts for sure.

  • École St-Alexandre says:

    C’est magnifique.
    À l’école St-Alexandre tous les cours d’éducation physique et à la santé sont à l’extérieurs depuis le printemps 2020 mais les cours en hiver depuis 2000.

  • Rosemary Perkin says:

    I found your article on suggested language or questions to put to children who might be in precarious play situations which can cause alarm to the adults Wh are caring fir them very helpful and would love to read more of your suggestions.

  • Leila Villagarcia says:

    Me encanta su mensaje para hacerlo con mis hijos!

  • Doris stuart says:

    This is so true i say Becareful sometimes to the children now I realize that I understand your suggestions are more meaning ful to the children

  • Allyson Marzo says:

    You are teaching the children to assess for themselves the risks and dangers around them. I find this absolutely brilliant. The need to explore, test their boundaries, and HIDING – all of it!…is so essential for children to know and understand their physical limits. But the proper supervision which allows for minor scrapes and bruises, gives them self-awareness and builds self-esteem, too, which leads to independence and leadership skills.
    Do you also teach them their relationship to the general and specific knowledge of Nature, and their role in preserving it? Outdoor Education from the 70’s, and onwards, only ever dealt with Nature’s systems, but used the tired, old communication strategies of forever. This is very different! And very welcome! Thank you for reminding us that there is still so much for us all to learn.

  • Susi McMillan says:

    You had an amazing poster one day with all the right things to say….. lost it in the woods or better to say… got wet and crumbled in my backpack…. where can I find a copy…? Susi McMillan Forest and Nature school practitioner Cohort Calagary 2016/2017

  • Self awareness is practiced and learned by both children and adults. Taking the time to find positive reinforcement versus negative is a creative task in itself and this post truly project the importance of positive communication and guidance. Love this!

  • […] her study of risky play in toddler-aged children, Dr. Ellen Sandster created six areas of risky play and encourages parents to utilize specific language targeted at […]

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