My kids and I took a Friday off from school recently and took a drive “up north” (as we say in Michigan) to pick my husband up at the end of his staff retreat. We proceeded to drive down the coast of Lake Michigan, exploring some cute towns, meandering into a used book store, and having root beer floats.
During our adventure, we came across a playground on the Lake Michigan shoreline. My kids oohed and aahed at the site of two towering slides. They had “unsafe” angles and were made of aluminum that I know from experience can blister bare legs on a hot summer day. The kind of slides I played on as a kid.
It isn’t until you see a playground like this, a relic of the past, that you realize your own childhood has become a thing of myth.
Parks and playgrounds look nothing like the ones I used to play in. In my elementary school, a teeter-totter was an old, long slab of wood (with splinters) and no handles. We spent countless hours putting 10 people on one end and one child on the other and smacking that thing on the ground so that the child would fly into the air, and hopefully, land on their feet on the plank when they descended. I was often favored because I was little for my age, and, would fly especially high. I worked to learn the art of flying, and more and more people piled on the other end to see how high I would go.
Once I did not come down as planned, and the little boys in my school ran to the out-building, grabbed the old military cot kept there, tried to load me onto the “stretcher,” and carry me into the school. Today’s parents would have sued and lobbied for a playground monitor. My parents nursed my bruises and didn’t overact. Wounds were a part of life.
Besides the “unsafe” playground, there were the woods behind our school. And when in the 4th grade I asked for a pocket knife so I could use my knife to skin the bark off of trees in those woods at recess, I was given one as a birthday gift. We finished our lunches in minutes so we could head off into the trees with our knives and conduct wars between the Cowboys and Indians, burrowing big holes, covering them with ferns, and attempting to capture our “enemies” by having them fall into the holes. The 21st century anxiety-ridden mother in me wants to know why someone didn’t stop us.
About the time I was enjoying these dangerous pastimes, Joe Frost, and others like him started a crusade to make playground equipment safe. These safety advocates largely succeeded, and the result is that your child can visit nearly any park in the country and find almost the exact same playground equipment, with a manmade soft surface underneath, instead of the pesky hard earth with potentially hazardous rocks and sticks.
Which is good news right?
But even as we try to keep kids safe from getting hurt, there is a lot of evidence that our over-protection prevents them from learning to analyze risk and learn to take responsibility for wise choices.
Hanna Rosin, in The Overprotected Kid, writes that Joe Frost himself started to realize there was another side. In 2006, Frost wrote that it was an erroneous belief “that children must somehow be sheltered from all risks of injury…. [L]ife is filled with risks—financial, physical, emotional, social—and reasonable risks are essential for children’s healthy development.”
Rosin also cites David Ball, a professor of risk management who “found some evidence in studies that long-bone injuries…are actually increasing. The best theory for that is ‘risk compensation’—kids don’t worry as much about falling on rubber, so they’re not as careful, and end up hurting themselves more often.”
In other words, strip away the obvious risks, and there are new ones, particularly the inability to assess risk and respond wisely.
I remember being a young mother given to fears every time we visited a park, walked near a lake, or played in the waves. I know that injuries from falls can be very serious.
But on a chilly Michigan day as I watched my kids navigate the big slide with such joy, I had to believe they were getting something essential to their fullness as human beings: the opportunity to take a risk.
Photo Credit: All images courtesy of Rachelle Reitz.