A long, long time ago, I played a game called dodge ball. All the neighborhood children formed teams and I was usually the unfortunate one who was picked last and always on the opposite team from both of my brothers. We played on the street, always careful to notice when Mr. Shiree’s car careened out the driveway. We all hit the dirt as he sped by. So why am I sharing such fond memories of my childhood with you? I recently read an article in The Atlantic (April, 2014) called, “Hey! Parents, Leave Those Kids Alone.” It highlighted the evolution of our society’s perception of what was considered safe for children and how it was affecting children’s levels of independence. The article starts out talking about a playground in England called The Land where children are able to build structures made from tires and pallets, and play with fire (oh no!). “Playworkers” supervised the playground and the only injuries sustained since its opening two years ago have been an occasional scraped knee.
New playground guidelines dictate the kinds of structures and surfaces allowed in public places. Enrichment programs are made available after school each day (yes, even us), and teams are organized where every child gets a trophy. Children are constantly supervised and managed. What about free time for children where they can play outside “unsupervised”? The author believes that the very nature of being watched all the time (and children know they are) fundamentally changes their personality and their experiences of childhood. She goes on to explain that parents are becoming more fearful and the result is to limit their child’s active participation in childhood. One researcher observed that, “There is a fear among parents, an exaggeration of the dangers, a loss of trust that isn’t clearly explainable.”
Unfortunately, what has replaced this risky outdoor play has been a default strategy where supervised play becomes a computer screen on the family couch. We give children an iPad to play FIFA soccer. Don’t get me wrong. I love playing FIFA soccer and I do so with my friend’s teenagers. However, it does not replace grabbing a soccer ball and going out back with other kids to play a rough and tumble game. And while I love the Wii and encourage it, it does not replace the outdoor activities of climbing steep hills where the muscles in your legs feel the incline of that hill or the adjustment your foot might make because of a tree root in your path.
While having safer playground structures has saved lives, eliminating natural landscapes removes accountability and minimizes resilience and the development of common sense. Children still seek out what the author described as risky activities and learn how to adjust accordingly to those things. If we constantly remove this propensity for risky behavior, they will seek it elsewhere, usually on a cell phone or computer screen where they can’t be watched.
There was something more glaring to me as I read: If children constantly are being managed and supervised, how are they going to learn to manage themselves and take care of themselves once they grow up? What experiences will they have? If we assume that a child cannot manage something and we must intervene, what message are we sending them? Will they look to others to solve problems instead of figuring it out themselves or collaborating with others to find a solution? I can assure you what I learned from playing the game of dodge ball was to become more agile, calculate where children (i.e. evil brothers) positioned themselves, and throw better and harder so I wouldn’t get the sting of the ball. Oh, by the way, as I got older, I also learned to root for the underdogs and pick them to be on my team! I think they call that empathy nowadays.