Across the street from my house, there is a school playground. A combination of granular rubber and Astroturf covers the ground, with a swath of old concrete down one side. A single set of play equipment stands in a corner made of non-skid grating and molded plastic. It has a few slides, a fireman’s pole, and monkey bars. There’s a basketball net nearby, and two empty goal posts on the soccer field, but that’s it. There is not a blade of grass in sight. There are no trees or bushes within the confines of the chain link fence, so there is minimal shade. There is no sandbox, let alone loose objects such as sticks or building blocks with which to build forts.
When I look out the window, I see little kids swarming the equipment. But the older kids stand in bored-looking groups, huddling against the fence, shuffling with impatience as they wait for the bell to ring. A few kick around a soccer ball, but mostly there’s nothing for them to do.
We have become a society completely paranoid about possible dangers during play. Most kids are not allowed to engage in risky play, which Norwegian early childhood education professor Ellen Sandseter defines as the following: (1) exploring heights; (2) handling dangerous tools; (3) being near dangerous elements, such as fire and water; (4) rough-and-tumble play; (5) experiencing speed; (6) exploring on one’s own. Parents who do allow their children the freedom to play “dangerously” are considered negligent. As Hanna Rosin points out in an excellent article for The Atlantic:
“If a 10-year-old lit a fire at an American playground, someone would call the police and the kid would be taken for counseling.”
Rosin’s article, “The Overprotected Child,” examines what has happened to an entire generation of young people since the 1970s, when playground safety and “stranger danger” became a national obsession and parents no longer let their children play freely and unchaperoned. By losing out on years of critical free-range play, children fail to overcome phobias and suffer more from separation anxiety, which translates to a generation that faces a unique identity crisis – fear of growing up.
As a parent, I understand the urge to protect my children and prevent them from experiencing danger, but I also see how parents do their kids a great disfavour by not trusting them enough. Instead of assuming kids are “too fragile or unintelligent to assess the risk of any given situation,” parents should know when to hand over the reins and let kids figure things out on their own.
Not only is this crucial from a psychological perspective, but also for the future of environmentalism. How can we possibly expect future generations to care about the wellbeing of the earth if they are uncomfortable venturing out into it? A child who spends time outdoors is one who cares and will support protective policies.
If only schools and parks would rip up their boring equipment and add loose parts to their playgrounds, such as the Anarchy Zone in Ithaca, NY, Pop-Up Adventure Play, the Land in North Wales (see video clip below), and the tamer Imagination Playground in New York City – places where children are free to create their own fun using provided materials. Not only will children be happily stimulated for hours on end, but Rosin’s article has convinced me that they will actually become better adjusted adults as a result. It sounds like a risk worth taking.