Precaution must slide away from playground play


We shouldn’t lock ourselves indoors with only a penny, a potato chip and a used napkin as entertainment, nor can we allow parents to make “Bubble Wrap Mummy” or “Human Hamster Ball” the next hip fashion trend. (Greg Goebel/Flickr Creative Commons)

Crawling, walking, running, jumping, sliding, swinging: this serves as not only a logical sequence for child development, but also an outline of typical playground activities. As exuberant youths traverse through tunnels, take curvy descents to ground level, swing to glorious heights and climb every structure imaginable, onlooking parents fret over their children’s nonchalant, consensual engagement with such a certain deathtrap. After all, children are prone to both scrape themselves (whether by leaping from heights or by tripping over their own two feet) and get themselves dirty (or even consume dirt if it looks especially delectable). As someone who barely walks competently, I understand that anything can pose a threat to our respective livelihoods. However, this doesn’t mean that we should remove risk from our environment entirely, particularly from an educational setting like a children’s playground.

Physical falls don’t always lead to falls from grace; if anything, they may provide us with resilience and a much-needed reality check. An article from The Atlantic written by Lori Gottlieb argues that parents’ well-meaning attempts to shield their children from potential obstacles and consequently increase their happiness may backfire. Regarding a young girl who trips over a rock, Gottlieb notes astutely that “if you don’t let her experience that momentary confusion, give her the space to figure out what just happened (Oh, I tripped), and then briefly let her grapple with the frustration of having fallen and perhaps even try to pick herself up, she has no idea what discomfort feels like, and will have no framework for how to recover when she feels discomfort later in life.”

Such an inability to accept less-than-ideal circumstances hampers the enjoyability of playground play and applies to other contexts (e.g. an academic overachiever may sob uncontrollably over an A-minus, or one may be too prideful to step down from an overly difficult task or to ask for assistance in completing it). Furthermore, behavioral biologist Nga Nguyen justifies the worldwide ascent of limited-risk playgrounds through her declaration that “risk and risky play in particular is a vital part of our animal/primate heritage. It is through our engagement with risk, or any unfamiliar or uncomfortable situation … that we learn how to use our bodies safely to interact with the physical and social challenges in the environment.”

My personal experiences also serve as an example of the benefits of playground risk-taking. For instance, my close family friend’s part-human, part-primate offspring speed up rock-climbing walls and across monkey bars routinely. Apart from feeling old and broken down at the ripe age of twenty, I witness both the excitement and educational value of risk-taking (although other ventures, like the two boys’ occasional descent into the dirty, putrid McDonald’s PlayPlaces, are virtually life-threatening). Throughout our childhood, my and my elder sisters’ tendency to twist ourselves around on swings, run up slides and even descend from our waterslide backwards on our stomachs with our legs overhanging each side illustrates that unconventional play doesn’t always imply high risk. On the opposite end of the spectrum, our trampoline netting’s theft of our former next-door neighbor’s tooth demonstrates that precautionary measures backfire occasionally.

Considering the never-ending school shootings, often premature exposure to sex and drugs, looming threat of child abduction and unfiltered nature of modern technology, parents’ overprotective tendencies are understandable. However, we must learn to rebound from adversity, both on the playground and beyond it. After all, why would we permit chainsaw-wielding monsters to chase us throughout haunted graveyards, allow dentists to treat our teeth with sharp metal tools and applaud participation in sports (and revel in the violence of football and ice hockey especially) if all risks compromised our well-being?

We shouldn’t lock ourselves indoors with only a penny, a potato chip and a used napkin as entertainment, nor can we allow parents to make “Bubble Wrap Mummy” or “Human Hamster Ball” the next hip fashion trend. As Nguyen wisely claims, “a child who understands through personal experience the true costs and benefits of engaging in any sort of activity is a more informed individual, one that is more capable of looking after themselves, and a better (future) citizen of the world.”

Michael Katz is a contributor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email

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