The indispensable John Tierney has a great article up at the NYT asking an important question — are we making playgrounds too safe? Across the nation, swings, slides, merry-go-rounds and even teeter-totters are vanishing. But…
“Children need to encounter risks and overcome fears on the playground,” said Ellen Sandseter, a professor of psychology at Queen Maud University in Norway. “I think monkey bars and tall slides are great. As playgrounds become more and more boring, these are some of the few features that still can give children thrilling experiences with heights and high speed.”
We have a nice playground near my house. Sal 11000 Beta was terrified of the high slide at first; now loves it. She’s regularly crossing the monkey bars and loves the swings. And I’ve watched her overall confidence grow along with her physical confidence. I’ve also noticed, however, that she’s frequently the only kid there.
Sometimes, of course, their mastery fails, and falls are the common form of playground injury. But these rarely cause permanent damage, either physically or emotionally. While some psychologists — and many parents — have worried that a child who suffered a bad fall would develop a fear of heights, studies have shown the opposite pattern: A child who’s hurt in a fall before the age of 9 is less likely as a teenager to have a fear of heights.
By gradually exposing themselves to more and more dangers on the playground, children are using the same habituation techniques developed by therapists to help adults conquer phobias, according to Dr. Sandseter and a fellow psychologist, Leif Kennair, of the Norwegian University for Science and Technology.
I talk a lot on this blog about how people can’t succeed without the freedom to fail. The same applies to kids — in school, in life and on the playground. You can’t learn to climb without the occasional fall; you can’t run without the occasional stumble; you can’t make friends without the occasional rejection. Dealing with failure, difficulty and even pain is one of the most important skills to learn. And, thanks to silly lawsuits and a paranoid culture, we’re insulating our kids from that, raising a generation of fat terrified kids.
Seriously, check out this article, which describes parents fretting about their children riding buses, going into the woods without walking talkies and swimming without a lifeguard. They’re responding by, among other things, forbidding kids from holding their breath under-water.
So no breath holding, no swimming without a lifeguard, no unsupervised play and don’t even think about getting on a bus alone until you’re old enough to drive. At which time you will no longer need the bus in the first place.
Or consider this story about the hyper-regulation of Colorado preschools, where a child’s life is regulated down to the race of the dolls they play with. TV time is restricted, teachers are forbidden from eating fast food near kids and whole milk is banned. (Although whether this is more child paranoia than ridiculous job-justifying over-regulation is debatable).
This is insanity. We can not protect kids from life, either with our personal behavior or with our regulations. As Penn says, the world is not made of nerf. You’re going to get cut; but not too deep if you’re careful. Childhood is a time to enjoy life, to be free to explore and yes, to fall and get hurt. It’s not a time to be put into a prison built of lawsuits, regulations and parental hysteria.
Back in the real world, I blogged earlier this week about Leiby Kletzky, the hassidic boy murdered the first time he tried to walk home on his own. You can read the statement from his parents here. Even after the unthinkable, they still have more perspective than 90% of the people out there.