I recently read a great article in The Atlantic magazine (also online). Hey! Parents, Leave Those Kids Alone, by Hanna Rosin, is all about the rise of the "over-protected kid" culture we now live in and what has been lost in childhood due to it.
As an educator and a parent I really connected with this article. Rosin starts off at "The Land," an adventure playground that sounds much more theme-park like than it really is. "The Land" is an acre-sized open space for kids to roam in North Wales, UK. It has tire piles, pallets, a creek, mud, a fire-pit, and much more... all open and available for kids to explore. I'm not sure if something like that exists in the lawsuit-happy USA, and if it did, I'm not sure I'd be comfortable leaving my kids. "The Land" has a few adults who monitor the kids, interfering only in extreme situations, but generally staying out of the way and letting the kids roam free. The reason being that "kids should face what to them seem like “really
dangerous risks” and then conquer them alone." This is what
builds self-confidence and courage.
I agree with the idea. I think kids are handed everything these days, being driven to playdates and sports practices, monitored 24/7. I considered myself fairly laid-back as a parent, but even I find myself in irrational worry situations sometimes. My kids, ages seven and eight, went on a "safari" around our neighborhood a few weeks ago. They were super excited, packed up tons of stuff (bug collecting gear, a map, snacks, all the things they thought might be useful) and then went out. I gave them firm boundaries, despite the fact that our neighborhood is quiet and safe. The kids collected a few friends a long the way and had a great time, but I spent the entire two hours totally nervous when I couldn't see them from a window. At one point they went inside a house to wait for friends to get ready and my heart started racing. Oh no, I forgot to tell them not to go into houses! I barely know that family (except they are elderly, raising grandkids, always very friendly when we see them outside, and have been known to bring over fresh-from-the-oven cookies to share) and now my kids are in their home! Pure, irrational panic. The kids were fine, of course, had a great time, and learned a few things about winter safaris. In a different era that would have been a normal afternoon, not a parental milestone that took more courage for me than for them.
In the article Rosin also discusses the rise of playground safety standards, brought about largely by lawsuits in the 1970s. Now playgrounds have very strict, very detailed, safety standards covering heights and angles of slides, spacing between bars, depth and type of padding below surfaces and much, much more. Playgrounds have become so safe and sterile that children are bored by them. Happening across an old playground is an exciting and novel experience for children. I know of one playground that still has a merry-go-round, one that you can actually push and spin around, not a fancy musical one with slow moving horses. Kids love it! "Children are born with the instinct to take risks in play, because
historically, learning to negotiate risk has been crucial to survival;
in another era, they would have had to learn to run from some danger,
defend themselves from others, be independent. Even today, growing up is
a process of managing fears and learning to arrive at sound decisions.
By engaging in risky play, children are effectively subjecting
themselves to a form of exposure therapy, in which they force themselves
to do the thing they’re afraid of in order to overcome their fear. But
if they never go through that process, the fear can turn into a phobia." Super-safe playground eliminate all risk, thereby eliminating opportunities for children to face their fears.
Are playgrounds safer now? Do injury rates go down as playground safety standards go up? Studies say no. Because kids have this inborn need for risk they just use the playground structures in unintended, riskier way, like climbing on top of the covered slide, or walking across the top of the monkey-bars, in places where monkey bars are still allowed. The "safer" the structures get, the more creative the kids get, or else they lose interest altogether, which is something we see on school playgrounds. When kids go out for recess they are closely monitored by recess teachers enforcing strict rules such as no running in the structures, no climbing up the slides (something kids LOVE to do!), and no wrestling. All intended to reduce injury at school, but also reducing risk and challenge for the kids.
I had recess duty one winter day and I saw a group of fifth grade boys wrestling in the snow. I watched them for a few minutes and everyone seemed to be having fun, though one boy was frequently on the bottom. At one point I went over, paused the game, and checked in with the bottom kid. He was laughing and having a great time. I walked away. A few minutes later another recess teacher came over and separated the boys, reminding them of the "no wrestling" rule, a rule I wasn't aware of at the time. I understand it from a school liability standpoint, by oh what a loss. Fifth grade boys really need that opportunity to get their energy out, to run, and rough-house. That's how they learn and grow, testing their strengths and weakness, testing their roles with dominance, testing their muscles, and just getting their physical energy out. Instead they come in all wound up and bickering and we, as teacher, are supposed to push that aside and try to refocus them on academics.
I see the same thing in kindergarten each day. The five year olds are bored of the play structure and instead find ways to bug each other, then bring the bickering back to the classroom. There is no physical challenge for them at recess, no testing boundaries, no pushing themselves, no way for them to clearly work out the social dynamics they need to learn. Instead they turn to teachers, asking the adults to work out every minor disagreement for them.
A school in New Zealand agreed to participate in an experiment suspending all playground rules, "allowing the kids to run, climb trees, slide down a muddy hill, jump off
swings, and play in a “loose-parts pit” that was like a mini adventure
playground. The teachers feared chaos, but in fact what they got was
less naughtiness and bullying—because the kids were too busy and engaged
to want to cause trouble, the principal said."
Could we do that in this country? Probably not, especially without written permission from the parents of every child. Is it the ultimate answer to the problem, no, of course not, but I think it would be a start. Suspend or perhaps just reduce the rules. Of course that would require a change in liability, and a change in the parents' perspectives. Change, Rosin says, will have to come from the parents. She feels the culture is starting to slowly shift, with many parenting books appearing on shelves advocating a more relaxed, hands-off parenting style. Change, I agree, will have to come from the parents, but as a parent I know it will be easier said than done.