April 10, 2018

More Risk = More Child Development

There’s a new movement to bring risk into children’s lives in Britain and Australia, and some European countries. Australia has introduced new standards for playground equipment, telling professionals to look at the benefits, not just the risks, of activities that might produce injuries.

But not, heaven forbid, North America. According to Ellen Beate Hansen Sanseter, a Norwegian professor of education,  American families must “find someone to blame to cover the cost” of medical care, unlike their counterparts in European countries, which have socialized health care.

By that logic, Canada would be following suit and building playgrounds full of risk. Like the Princess Diana Playground in London where a sign says that risks have been “intentionally provided, so that your child can develop an appreciation of risk in a controlled play environment rather than taking similar risks in an uncontrolled and unregulated wider world.”


In schools and playgrounds and rec centres, says one UK teacher:  “We have fires, we use knives, saws, different tools. They normally only cut themselves once,” she says.

I personally, as a mother, find this terrifying.

When my grown offspring drive on the highway, I like to tell them several times to drive carefully, not speed, not drive in a snowstorm, not drive on Saturday night when the drunks are on the road, etc etc etc. I am painfully aware that the hardest part of parenting is the letting go part. I struggle with this. We all do.

Some academic did a PhD thesis not too long ago and demonstrated that in the last 20 years the area of play space around a child has gone from 2 km to 150 metres. We know that the percentage of children who get to and from school without a parent dropped from around 85 percent of 9-year-olds in 1971 to around 25 percent in 1990. We seem to have an innate need to bubble-wrap our kids, at their peril.

Which is what makes these “risk play spaces” so challenging – for parents. Kids love them. Data show that kids use the riskier play objects more when they’re available. Duh. As parents, we fear this.

There’s a bottom line here and it is parental emotions.

We are the problem. How much space we give our kids to spread their wings, and fly, to take risk.

What happens when I harass my kids about how fast they drive and other stuff they do that scare me? Same thing that’s been happening since they were about 13. One of them makes nice (Obviously she’s the pleaser.), promises to do whatever I ask, and then does as she wishes. The other (not the pleaser) blows me off and does as he wishes while pretending otherwise.

The result of my efforts to control them and keep them safe? No effect on their behaviour. Trust me, I’ve researched this point.  But there IS a result to our hectoring: It changes our relationship – for the worse. They lie to us more, and pull away.  Therein lie the high stakes.

We know that trying to protect our kids from risk has two significant downsides – the relationship problem and the developmental issue. According to a British champion of play with risk: “You’ve got to get out there and find your position in the world. If you don’t give those children those creative skills, that risk, that opportunity to take a chance. If they don’t have all that risk out there when the child is four, the adult isn’t going to do that.”

But it’s hard for us. We cannot bear for our beloved children to get hurt. So the impediment to their development is inside our own hearts, in the place where we hold them back, where we over-protect them, where we try to smooth every path and remove every risk because of our fears for their safety. Which means we have to look in the mirror and give ourselves a good talking-to, saying, “Let go.”



Roots and Wings

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