Saturday, June 2, 2012

This playground is too safe

Yesterday I wrote an editorial about "nanny state" laws like the one NYC Mayor Bloomberg is proposing which would ban restuarants and theaters from selling drinks larger than 16 ounces, which is the size of a small drink from McDonald's. Reading about some of the ridiculous laws different states have passed in the name of health and safety made me wonder what kind of world my children will grow up in, considering how different things are now from my parents' childhood.

Of course, some of the things that have changed are probably a good thing. But surely there is a happy medium between "let's let our seven year old bike across town by himself with no helmet to play on a sharp, rusty slide over asphalt" and "have fun playing on this collection of smooth two-foot tall plastic blobs on mats while I hover."

Pretty much every playground I played at when I was little has since been replaced by a "safe" version, and let me tell you, I totally get why today's kids would rather stay inside and play video games than play outside. Parents who wonder why their children aren't enthusiastic about playing outside these days should consider whether their ten-year-old selves would find today's playgrounds, trampolines, and other outdoor activities remotely fun.

For example, take the slide. Slides used to be slidey. You could put a three-year-old at the top of a slick, straight, reasonably steep metal slide and catch them at the bottom as they whooped with exhilaration and shouted "Again!" Now those slides have been replaced with a rougher plastic version half as tall that curves around to kill momentum. You might as well stop calling it a slide and start calling it a scoot-down-slowly-using-your-feet. It is now much more fun to climb up them, which of course all of the adults are busy forbidding.

Also gone are monkey bars, jungle gyms, see-saws, tire swings, merry-go-rounds and pretty much anything else that actually got used for having fun at recess when I was a kid. It's not like I want kids to get hurt, but really, in first grade my shins always had bruises from jumping onto the merry go round while it was spinning and I grew up just fine. No therapy needed to deal with the childhood trauma. Ironically, the one time I was really seriously injured on a playground (they had to stitch my lower lip back together after I did a faceplant and bit through it) was in fourth grade, and it was on flat ground, where we were playing a game that involved holding hands with other kids and I couldn't catch myself when I tripped. I got over that, too.

Last year I read an article in the New York Times that said psychologists are starting to see study results that show that safety-first playgrounds are actually stunting childrens' psychological growth. Venturing a little higher each time on the jungle gym or leaping from one part of a tall structure to the other teaches children how to overcome fear, tackle challenges and take risks, which translates to other part of their lives. Children who play on safety-first playgrounds are also more likely to develop a fear of heights. As for older children, they get bored with play equipment designed to keep toddlers safe and either retreat inside or look for "fun" places to play, which are often more dangerous than the old-style playgrounds.

The people who change the world for the better are people who are creative, who see challenges as something to overcome rather than a permanent roadblock, who are willing to take risks but also have enough experience with risk-taking to know when it's a bad idea, who know how to pick themselves up and move on after they have gotten hurt. What happens when we spend all of our time trying to keep the next generation as far away from risks, challenges and hurt (physical and mental) as possible?

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