One of the unfortunate features of the human condition is that the natural exploratory behaviour of human infants has to be restricted, especially in conditions of civilization, where the hazards of traffic, electricity, gas, stairs and many other complex dangers have been added to those which are found in primitive, rural circumstances.
We are forced to overprotect our children psychologically, because we live in an artificial environment. We also tend to guard them too carefully in situations where this is not necessary, because small children are ill-equipped to look after themselves when surrounded by the dangerous trappings of civilization.
In a recent experiment, Eleanor Gibson constructed a ‘visual cliff; that is, a floor which appears to end in a steep drop, but which is actually safe since the floor continues as a sheet of tough glass. Babies crawl to the apparent edge, but will not take the risk of crawling onto the glass even if encouraged to do so, since they are already aware of the danger of the drop.
This is not to say that it is safe to leave a baby on the edge of a real cliff, since the child may turn round and fall off backwards. The pioneer doctors who started the Peckham Health Centre discovered that quite tiny children could be safely left in the sloping shallow end of a swimming bath.
Provided no adult interfered with them, they could teach themselves to swim, exploring the water gradually and never going beyond the point at which they began to feel unsafe. Similarly, children would teach themselves to ride bicycles and use gymnasium equipment, and did so more confidently and quickly than if adults tried either to urge them on or warn them to be careful