Can we stop treating kids like 'delicate morons'?

girl on monkey bars
CC BY 2.0 Rozzie Sanders

Kids aren't stupid, nor will they shatter, but most school playground rules treat them like they are.

Nothing gets my kids fired up like asking about playground rules. Their faces light up with indignation and their voices become shrill as they compete to share thoughts. The entire exchange inevitably ends with a loud "It's so unfair!"

Some of the more ridiculous rules I've heard about from them and their friends (not confirmed by the school) include not being allowed to make snow angels on the ground "because someone might step on them"; not being allowed on any of the climbing equipment if it's wet; not being allowed off the asphalt if the snow is icy; being banned from all ice on the playground; not being allowed to go out when it's raining; and, at their old school, not being allowed onto the field during recess if older kids are playing soccer, which meant staying confined to a section of old concrete. They are told constantly to keep out of puddles, away from trees, and not to take sand out of the sandbox.

In other words, young children are expected to play on the flattest, most boring sections of the playground, and to resist the natural lure of the more appealing parts. Sounds fun, doesn't it? If they cannot make snowballs, wield sticks, or nab a soccer ball, I don't quite know what they do. Walk around aimlessly? Wait for the time to pass? I assume they run a lot.

While I can understand the reasoning behind such rules, I don't agree with them because they treat children like "delicate morons." I have to thank Lenore Skenazy of Free Range Kids for this descriptor.

Overzealous rules assume that kids are incapable of assessing risk and knowing their own limits. Additionally, these rules make the egregious assumption that adults know more about play than kids do. As Skenazy writes on Let's Grow:

"The idea that some rule-maker knows better than some kid standing there, on the playground, how to do something natural — play — is as insulting as it is wrong. Why do we keep acting as if kids have zero common sense, and need adult management/wisdom/hectoring every single second?"

Children are not delicate and they are not morons. They're the opposite -- tough and resilient and quick to pick up new games -- and to be treated otherwise by adults is deeply offensive. The sad thing is, the more we treat children like delicate morons, the more they'll become that. They will start doubting their own physical abilities and shy away from situations where they might get scratched or bruised. Their confidence will wane, their creativity will shrivel, and their health most definitely will deteriorate.

I wish my kids could run out into a schoolyard full of loose parts and nature. I wish they were allowed to govern the way they play, within reason, and not be subjected to often arbitrary and overly paranoid adult interpretations of their games. I suspect that if kids were allowed to build, climb, dig, and throw to their hearts' content, there would be less bullying on the playground because they wouldn't be wandering around, bored, looking for distractions.

But it doesn't seem that school administrators want to take that chance. It's safer to continue treating little people like delicate morons and assume they're incapable of handling themselves at any age. Sadly, this means that we'll end up with a generation of delicate teenage morons, and eventually delicate adult morons, too.

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