The parental instinct to protect one's child is evolutionary. If something isn't safe, the parent's instinct is to remove the child from the danger, or otherwise minimize the threat.
That's a noble instinct, But is it always the best instinct? A recent story in the New York Times suggests that too much protection can stunt growth and inhibit an otherwise healthy desire to try new things and expand horizons.
Parental concern, government regulation, product safety guidelines and the fear of lawsuits have all contributed to the makeover of playgrounds from tall, creaky equipment resting on hard surfaces to kinder, gentler forms of outdoor apparatus. Shorter equipment sited on enclosed platforms underlain with absorbment material unquestionably prevents some injuries. But experts wonder at what cost.
“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 such as arm fractures increased after the introduction of softer surfaces on playgrounds in Britain and Australia.
“This sounds counterintuitive, but it shouldn’t ...,” Ball told The Times. “If children and parents believe they are in an environment which is safer than it actually is, they will take more risks.”
Playground equipment should be age-appropriate, of course--lower monkey bars will help develop a toddler's physical abilities. But they might impede an older child's psychological development or, because they're insufficiently challenging, encourage her to engage in play somewhere else--goofing around a high bridge over a river--that's too risky.
A study published in Evolutionary Psychology describes the value of risky play in encouraging children to confront their fears in order to overcome them. "[W]e may observe an increased neuroticism or psychopathology in society," the authors suggest, "if children are hindered from partaking in age adequate risky play."
Some researchers aren't convinced that children do suffer fewer physical injuries when their recreational corners are padded, but if so, they contend that such playgrounds may stunt emotional development and leave children anxious and fearful. Isn't that worse than a broken ankle?
As Ellen Sandseter, co-author of the Evolutionary Psychology study, told the New York Times, “I think monkey bars and tall slides are great. As playgrounds become more and more boring, these are some of the few features that still can give children thrilling experiences with heights and high speed.”
Sandseter identified six categories of risky play: exploring heights, experiencing high speed, handling dangerous tools, being near dangerous elements (water, fire), rough-and-tumble play (wrestling) and wandering alone away from adult supervision. The most common is climbing heights.
Children progressively raise their adventure bar, Sandseter, said. And that's the way they learn to accept and master challenge. When they fail, they get hurt, physically or emotionally. But as The Times' story reports, if parents and psychologists worry that a kid who suffers a bad fall will develop a fear of heights, studies have shown the opposite: A child younger than 9 who gets hurt in a fall is less likely as a teenager to have a fear of heights.
The gradual exposure to increasing danger is known as habituation. It's the same technique therapists use to help people overcome phobias. And it's hard-wired into our primordial brains: As The Times summarizes, "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 authors write in Evolutionary Psychology, “we posit that our fear of children being harmed by mostly harmless injuries may result in more fearful children and increased levels of psychopathology.”
So, parents, here's your long-term homework assignment. Try to understand that your instinct to keep the kids safe is normal and laudable, but it can overrun your child's need to take risks. You can't soften every blow, and--here's the take-home--you shouldn't try.
On the other hand, efforts to remove safety hazards from playgrounds are still important. When the issue is not just bumps and bruises, but head injury and serious harm, parents have a right to insist that playgrounds conform to safety standards.