“The Overprotected Kid” by Hanna Rosin, appeared in The Atlantic in April, but I thought it was worth a share still. While it’s aimed at parents, I think there are some interesting points for all of us!
It discusses the (d)evolution of playgrounds into the sterile, risk-minimizing, boring, identical structures that exist today, driven by an obsession with completely eliminating the possibility of children getting hurt. Today, policymakers, playground developers, psychologists and some parents are realizing that these boring playgrounds may do more harm than good when it comes to children’s development and even their safety.
For non-parent Millennials, there’s an interesting section nearly at the bottom that cites a few studies about the effects of this sterile, risk-free childhood on our generation, effects that include higher rates of depression and a lack of creativity. It’s interesting to think about the importance of taking risks and pushing out of our comfort zone in order to expand and grow. We may not be able to change the experience of our childhood, but perhaps we can extrapolate these ideas to inform how we approach our adult lives–risk-free and predictable or daring and adventurous?
Fair warning: it’s a long article–perfect for a weekend read!
I’d love to hear from you! What do you think of today’s boring playgrounds? How do you feel about controversial issues like allowing your kids to take walks by themselves or play at “adventure playgrounds?” How do you see your children’s environment and experiences differing from your own childhood?
The article by Hanna Rosin struck a nerve with me and I’ve been thinking about how to make a positive change in my own community to this end. I was able to attend a committee of lecturers and playworkers at Ithaca’s first Day of Play where I met representatives from the Alliance for Childhood, school and state park administrators, a filmmaker who’s working on a documentary about The Land, and other like-minded parents and citizens. We also toured an adventure playground, and saw the ideas discussed put into practice.
How many of us remember biking miles away from our houses, building forts out of rusty nails and junk, walking through streams barefoot on jagged, slippery rocks, and climbing trees higher and higher, just to see how we’d get down? Do any of us remember a parent nearby for any of this?
In our generation as parents, we’re advised of breaking news (usually bad) and Amber alerts with beeps on our smart phones, we have websites dedicated to the location of criminals and pedophiles, we have product recalls for almost every baby product over 2 years old, and we have escalating and largely unnecessary safety precautions (Seriously, did you have to ride your bike with a helmet? Did you have to sit in a carseat until you were almost 10?) It’s a wonder we let our children go to the bathroom by themselves. On top of this, our children’s toys are increasingly lacking in any creativity, and if there is a moment of even the slightest bit of boredom, the iPad swoops in to save the day.
As parents, we don’t want to see our children hurt, whether it be physically or emotionally, but it’s important for our kids to learn how to handle pain and upset on their own, and that Mommy and Daddy can’t always make it go away. It’s important for a child to learn to handle risks, a little at a time, and to build confidence in the obstacles they’ve tackled on their own.
Some things I’m learning to consider when watching my kids play…
1 – Don’t intervene. The things that might make you uncomfortable, (the mean kid, the taller slide) might be fleeting or not so important to your kid. They might handle it much better than you would. (This also falls under my ‘don’t babyproof’ rant.)
2 – Loose parts. Playgrounds and toys these days are one-trick ponies. The playgrounds are bolted down with a set pathway for movement (up the stairs, down the slide… and when kids get bored, up the slide and down the stairs), and toys are often elaborately colorful, with a couple of buttons that do two or three tricks, and that’s it. It’s understandable that after a little bit of use, children are bored by these options. Toys and play areas with objects that can be moved and manipulated offer more variety of play, more creativity, which leads me to….
3 – Junk. Give your kids junk (*not garbage), things that don’t have value to you anymore. Junk implies ‘permission’. If your child wants to disassemble it for parts, he can. If your child wants to know what it sounds like to smash it, she can. This object might be useless to you, but its uses might be endless for your child.
4 – Put away the iPad. Boredom is the mother of creativity.
Some of the first adventure playgrounds evolved out of bomb sites, basically junk yards left over from the war. Citizens allowed their children to play in these piles of rubbish, recognizing the need for it after such long periods of fear and terror. Today, our relatively cushy lifestyle is also weighted down by fear and terror, but of what, really? Our kids are much more capable than we give them credit for, and one thing they’re blessed not to have (yet) is fear. So let’s not teach our children to fear; instead, let’s let them play.
I really feel like it’s important to employ some critical thinking in parenting (duh). So for example, I’m actually pretty “strict” about carseat safety. Linden is still rear-facing in her seat because she’s still within the limit and it’s safer than facing forward because their spines aren’t fully ossified until they’re about 4. But in my opinion, this kind of caution makes sense. Hurling ourselves through space is a highly unnatural process that our bodies are not built for. Therefore, any further information we get on how to better protect ourselves in this situation is good. That’s my opinion.
But, in terms of playing, our bodies ARE built to do things like climb and run. And I think you really need to just pay attention to your kid to see how they approach things. Linden is pretty cautious, but adventurous, so she’s been climbing things too “old” for her for a while now, but after watching how to do it and practicing, she’s great at it! On the other hand, the kids that are held back from everything or hand-held through it all are probably more likely to hurt themselves when they finally do break free and just fly off the equipment. (But really, “hurt” is very likely to be a broken limb and not a life-threatening injury anyhow…)
I also think we need to let ourselves off the hook a bit and shed some of the anxiety. We CAN’T protect our kids from everything. It’s impossible. But if you teach your kids about how the world really works, and more importantly, let them experiment and experience it for themselves, you’re giving them a pretty good shot at navigating it as best as possible. And they can have fun!
I agree about the toys, too. I really try to avoid the flashy, loud things. I figure if it’s annoying and boring to the adults, it’ll get annoying and boring for the kids soon enough, too. However, when I find my 31-year old self still playing with the Etch-a-sketch, for example, I figure it’s a winner! 😉
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Thank you for writing something like this. I will never ever forget climbing up so high into a tree with no one around at about age 9 or 10 and wondering how I would get down. I did make it.
And now I think of all those Plan As, Bs, Cs and Ds I used to plan in years of lesson planning just in case A didn’t go so well. Yep, I received great reviews because nothing went wrong, but was it really worth it to stress over the max for a Plan B, C, D?
Oh I admire how prepared you must have been! But yeah, it’s really easy to stress over the “what-ifs.” I’m trying to let go a bit and just enjoy it all more!