Some of my most vivid childhood memories are running wild through Laumeier Sculpture Park outside St. Louis, Missouri, with a pack of siblings and cousins. The 105-acre park is more like an open-air museum dotted with sculptures that tower 65 feet into the air and holes that fall several feet into the dirt.
As we played tag and turned the abstract pieces of art into our pirate ships and dungeons, we were acutely aware of the absence of “no touching” signs on many of the sculptures. No sign meant climbing or hanging wasn’t against the rules, right?
Looking back, I’m certain these memories stay in sharp focus because our play had an element of risk. Not danger, really—only a sense of exhilaration when climbing and sliding on sculptures slightly taller and unfamiliar than I was used to.
As I wrote earlier this month, since the mid-1950s, the time children have for free play has been steadily decreasing. The decrease comes from all sorts of factors: overscheduled afterschool hours, more screen time, and an increased emphasis on academic skill development at ever-younger ages.
Running parallel to these shifts are changes in how Americans parent and growing fears concerning safety. As journalist Hanna Rosin described in her Atlantic piece, “The Overprotected Kid,” many parents today are more worried than ever before about playground injuries or stranger abductions, although the rate of both has stayed approximately the same since the 1970s.
One consequence of these fears, as Rosin reported, is that parents aren’t letting kids wander alone or with peers in their neighborhoods as they used to. And playgrounds and public play spaces have gotten safer and more boring, robbing kids of the opportunity to take risks and to grow.
Last February, Susan Solomon, author of the book “The Science of Play,” gave a keynote speech on this topic at a community conversation hosted by the Playful Pittsburgh Collaborative at the Carnegie Museum of Art. The collaborative formed last year to educate community members about the importance of play in children’s development and to advocate for more opportunities for play in the Pittsburgh region.
Solomon said behavioral science has shown that to thrive, kids need opportunities to fail, keep trying, problem solve, and eventually reach mastery. Play can help give kids these opportunities.
But how, exactly, does this happen on a typical playground?
An article in the Wall Street Journal about playgrounds being “too safe” addressed a newer type of basket swing that fits several children at once and becomes an instant social event—undoubtedly requiring occasional conflict resolution. Another 30-foot-tall climbing pyramid made of net has only the appearance of risk—and it keeps kids coming back until they’ve figured out how to conquer it.
In her Atlantic piece, Rosin describes playgrounds in England on which kids have the freedom to build fires and build and launch their own canoes across a stream.
Cara Ciminillo, collaborative member and operations director at the Pittsburgh Association for the Education of Young Children, said risk is a key element in any learning —for both kids and adults.
“What we know about all kinds of learning is that if you take challenge out of people’s learning or children’s play, they’re not going to be interested,” she told me in an interview last fall. “You’ll lose their attention. What we know is that risk plays a really important role in moving people along their learning trajectory—it’s just, how do you look at risk as a challenge instead of a hazard or danger?”
Of course, thinking about letting kids climb higher, slide faster, and wander a bit farther is one thing—making it happen is quite another.
Marijke Hecht, collaborative member and director of education at the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, was co-teaching a course on play at the University of Pittsburgh last year. One night, after the class session devoted to risk, she turned on her cell phone to see several messages. Turns out, while she was in class, her 10-year-old daughter had fallen face first and broken her collar bone while playing outside by herself.
“The whole experience of working with the collaborative helped me say, ‘That’s ok, it’s a broken bone. Bones heal,’” Hecht explained. After she calmed down a bit, Hecht said she could focus on the fact that her daughter probably was going to learn a beneficial lesson from the accident (that is, do not run and jump in the dark). “It was one of those moments where I thought . . . ‘Ok I’ve got to walk the walk.’”
It turns out that even if Hecht’s daughter had been playing on a super-padded, plastic playground crawling with supervision, she may have been just as likely to have a similar injury.
David Ball, a professor of risk management at Middlesex University, told Rosin in the Atlantic piece that new, softer playground surfaces like rubber chips haven’t contributed to children’s safety in the United Kingdom, according to injury reports. (The same is true in the United States.)
In fact, Ball has found some evidence that long-bone injuries, more common than head injuries, are actually increasing.
Rosin wrote, “The best theory for that is ‘risk compensation’—kids don’t worry as much about falling on rubber, so they’re not as careful, and end up hurting themselves more often. The problem, says Ball, is that ‘we have come to think of accidents as preventable and not a natural part of life.’”
As a culture, we should be shifting how we evaluate risk. Doing a better job of weighing its benefits could give kids more chances to be independent and practice risk assessment on their own—a key skill they’ll need in the future.
As Ciminillo put it, another generation of kids deprived of free play is a much riskier prospect than letting kids climb a little higher, slide a little faster, and take the chances they need to grow.