If you have ever sat and watched children interacting on a playground, you know that they often push the boundaries when it comes to safety. Kids stand up on swings, try to surf down slides and climb on anything they think will bear their weight. As it turns out, the apparent need for children to thwart safety measures may be hard-wired. Child-development experts have recently found that children need a certain amount of physical risk in their life and instinctively seek it. Unfortunately, overprotective or “helicopter” parents as they are affectionately known, in combination with ever-present fear of lawsuits, have resulted in playground equipment that many children find outright boring!
Psychology Prof. Kathryn Hirsh-Pasek, expressed fears that children not allowed to test their physical limits may never develop the ability to recognize and take healthy risks. By taking chances, children develop risk management skills they will need later in life. Not only does risky play help children, but it also appears that children lacking risk in their lives are more prone to develop anxieties and phobias. One study in Norway found that children who never climb up trees have a greater risk of developing a fear of heights later in life.
Furthermore, dull playgrounds have children finding fewer reasons to engage in physical activity outside which does not help the ever-increasing childhood obesity epidemic. However, the trend toward boring playground equipment and coddled children may be turning around. In response to work done by various child psychologists’, playgrounds that are a little less safe and a lot more fun are making a come back. In some cases, newly developed playgrounds give more of an appearance of danger than the actual reality, which hopefully will appease both parents and children.
Some degree of risky play is important for children to be able to confront situations that frighten them and overcome them at their own speed. However, risk is only a part of the puzzle. Children also need some playtime that is unstructured to encourage the development of cognitive as well as physical competencies. Children left to their own devices and allowed a degree of risk will work through their fears and become more confident and creative. Children who are treated like greenhouse plants, however, run the risk of growing into high maintenance adults who lack confidence and may become neurotic.
Grandparents everywhere are nodding their heads, saying, “I told you so.”
The child who is ‘left behind’ most is the one who leaves school without transition readiness.
Dr. James Stanfield, Ed.D.