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Stay Out of the Way -- Let Your Kids Play

February 24, 2019

“Heights, speed, tools, dangerous elements, rough-and-tumble play, and the ability to disappear or become lost.”

Sound like traits needed to be a secret operative, an emergency-room doc or an astronaut, right?

But what if I told you these are things our children need to do to thrive mentally, physically and emotionally? That’s what a Vox by Design YouTube titled, “Why Safe Playgrounds Aren’t Great for Kids,” is touting, and parents should take notice.

To understand how far the pendulum has swung toward neuroticism over safety, we have to go back to just after World War II, when European landscape architects Carl Theodor Sorensen and Marjory Allen, the latter also an advocate for children’s welfare, realized that kids naturally want to dig, build, take risks, learn and explore on their own. Not only that, but they are quite capable of doing so. When Sorensen noticed Copenhagen kids preferred construction sites and bombed-out buildings to conventional playgrounds, he came up with an idea called junkyard playgrounds, which is pretty much what it sounds like -- filling spaces with discarded materials and tools for kids to use in play.

Allen ran with Sorensen’s insight, renamed these areas “adventure playgrounds” and brought them to the UK, the belief being that kids need to cultivate parent-free experiences as they collaborate and move and construct within their own spaces.

Not only is it fun, but it’s imperative to a child’s health and welfare. Kids need separation of space. That means kids do better -- and quite well, as a matter of fact -- when parents stay out of the way.

I’m brought back, and you probably are too if you’re 40 or older, to the wide range of outdoor spaces in which we played in our neighborhoods and communities. Spaces we were given the freedom to explore and utilize as we were growing up.

So what has happened over the last three generations? A slow paranoia over keeping kids super-safe has taken a stronghold in our culture, strangling how kids play and learn. Today, it’s not uncommon for parents to shame other parents when they see a kid climbing a tree or not wearing a helmet, never mind walking home with a sibling from school or the park.

The truth is, there is no safer time than right now in history to let our kids out to play and explore their own communities. Thousands more kids are killed in car accidents than the handful abducted each year. But this better-safe-than-sorry attitude has backfired, and is still backfiring in big ways.

When our children get into disagreements or face challenges, we must give them the space and time to navigate through so they can learn to follow through and build a sense of pride and worth. When we let go of the reins, we show them they can do much of the problem-solving on their own.

The micro-aggression culture that has taken root in colleges across the country is yet another defeatist example of overprotection doing more harm than good. I give you a generation of teens growing into young adults who are worried sick and fraught with anxiety so much that they seem to need safe places at every turn. Learning and building confidence, innovation and implementation, dealing with risk and being trusted with freedom all goes back to those first days of play.

Our so-called “safe playgrounds” are only shielding our kids from the beneficial kinds of risk-taking and the genuine experiences that developing kids not only need but want.

Think about the bored kid who gets scolded for breaking the rules and climbing up the slide. The irony is that the more we protect our kids from getting hurt feelings and bruised knees, and the safer we make the environments in which they play, the more dangerous it will be for them in the long run -- for all of us.

We have to ask ourselves: Do we hover over our child each time the going gets tough or do we simply say, “I know you can do it,” and walk away, giving them the space and freedom to figure it out on their own? Call your own bluff, parents. Stop being so scared. Let your kids know you believe in them.

From allergies to hurt feelings to safe places, we are understanding that introducing kids to certain amounts of risk early on is both natural and beneficial. But that kind of thinking is tough to embrace when a whole culture buys into the idea that our kids are too fragile to function on their own or that we, as parents, can protect our kids from every kind of danger. Just look at the test scores of kids in our nation. Look at the condition of their physical health. Look at the rise in anxiety and depression. Look outdoors. Where are the kids?

We’re in a parental perfect storm that is swallowing up our kids.

So what can parents do to help undo some of the drastic overprotection?

We must trust our children. When you treat kids with serious respect, they will learn how to treat others and themselves the same way. And we have to know the difference between hazards and risks. Playing in traffic is hazardous. Climbing a tree comes with a degree of risk, and when children learn how, they are able to build skills, gain knowledge, assert confidence and develop their physical bodies.

Ask yourself: How much time has my child spent free and on his or her own? How much time does my child spend outdoors? Has my kid ever climbed a tree?

Parents, we have to step back a little and lighten up. Kids are safer than we were growing up. We must fight back against the scare tactics and the kid-in-a-bubble mentality. I get it. I remember all those poor kids’ faces on milk cartons. I’ve experienced busybody parents and felt the shaming, and I’ve read and heard about decent parents having to deal with the overreactive result of child-protection services.

It’s time to tell our kids it’s OK if they don’t get a trophy at all. It’s high time we tell our kids that being on their own, taking risks and even hurt feelings are healthy and good for them.

I’m so glad I climbed trees as a kid. I’m even happier I encouraged my kids to climb trees. I hope you will, too. The view is wonderful. And it’s free.

Bonnie J. Toomey teaches at Plymouth State University, writes about writing, learning, and life in the 21st century. You can follow Parent Forward on Twitter at https://twitter.com/bonniejtoomey . Learn more at www.parentforward.blogspot.com or visit bonniejtoomey.com .