Safe Playgrounds Are Destroying SocietyS

My front tooth is fake. It's a remnant of when I was a kid, and smacked into the jungle gym. That would never happen today, because kids' playgrounds are so much safer. As it turns out, that's a bad thing.

The New York Times has a fantastic story today on the de-riskification of kids playgrounds, and how this may be hurting our children over the long haul.

From coast to coast (and internationally) we've changed the things children play on. Asphalt and sand have been replaced by rubber. Monkey bars, tall slides and swings, and Tarzan ropes have largely been removed. We took out the fun stuff and made it safe. We want to protect our kids from every bump and bruise and scrape and pain that might come their way.

It's natural, right? You want to keep your kids from harm. As a new parent I know this firsthand. But all we're doing is screwing them up long-term. This isn't just, like, my opinion, man. It's evidence-based. As the Times notes:

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.

"Risky play mirrors effective cognitive behavioral therapy of anxiety," they write in the journal Evolutionary Psychology, concluding that this "anti-phobic effect" helps explain the evolution of children's fondness for thrill-seeking. While a youthful zest for exploring heights might not seem adaptive - why would natural selection favor children who risk death before they have a chance to reproduce? - the dangers seemed to be outweighed by the benefits of conquering fear and developing a sense of mastery.

"Paradoxically," the psychologists write, "we posit that our fear of children being harmed by mostly harmless injuries may result in more fearful children and increased levels of psychopathology."

This is a symptom of a larger epidemic. We live in a risk-averse era. We are all so terribly timid and afraid that something bad may happen. Don't let them go too high, or too fast, or too far. Always wear your helmet and a long-sleeved shirt. Avoid fear. Avoid challenges. Avoid anything that's not on your television, other than moderate amounts of exercise (but not too strenuous!) and a sensible diet.

We live in a world made over by lawyers and insurance contracts. And it's killing us.

Taking risks is what makes society great. We need the risk takers. The entrepreneurs, the inventors, the explorers, the astronauts, the revolutionaries, for they are the ones who drive the world forward. And when we start our children off by teaching them that the worlds is a big scary place that will hurt them—that they can't climb too high and that they always need a soft landing surface below—we're weeding those adventurous types out at a very young age. We're making them afraid of the world.

And the most screwed up thing about all this coddling? It doesn't even work. Because parents and kids think these softened, lowered, neutered playgrounds are safer, they in turn take more risks in their play. Which ultimately leads to more injuries. As the Times reports:

"There is no clear evidence that playground safety measures have lowered the average risk on playgrounds," said David Ball, a professor of risk management at Middlesex University in London. He noted that the risk of some injuries, like long fractures of the arm, actually increased after the introduction of softer surfaces on playgrounds in Britain and Australia.

I don't care what the lawyers say. My kid? I'm taking her to the monkey bars. The higher the better.

[Photo by Patti Gravel]


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