Hoping to learn a bit more about the apparently healthy 8-year-old who has been deposited in your exam room for his biannual checkup, you take the opportunity to ask him a few questions with his mother in the waiting room. “So, Jason, what do you like to do for fun?”
“Well, yesterday I started a fire with my buddy Rudy, and we burned a whole bunch of sticks and stuff.”
“Does your mother know about this?”
“She wasn’t around, but I think so. We’ve done it a bunch of times before.”
Okay, here you are with an 8-year-old pyromaniac whose parents are clearly under-supervising him. Who do you call first? The folks at Child Protective Services or the State Fire Marshall’s Office? Clearly, he and your community are at significant risk.
If you were practicing in Wrexham, a town in North Wales, you would continue your questioning with, “So you like to go to The Land after school? I’ve heard it’s a fun place?”
The Land is 3-year-old adventure playground that I learned about in a thought-provoking article in The Atlantic ( The Overprotected Kid , by Hanna Rosin, April 2014). The nearly acre-sized site would look like a junkyard to any adult whose imagination has atrophied with age. Strewn with used tires, wooden palettes, dirty old mattresses, and decrepit lawn furniture, it provides endless opportunities for children to create their own places for play and adventure. By stacking, rolling, hammering together, and rearranging the loose detritus of society, children can transform the junk into an ever-changing landscape for fun. A fire pit and an old oil drum – among the most popular items – are often smoldering with fires the children have started. The filthy mattresses become trampolines. The children are observed by professionally trained “playworkers” who are continually updating the risk assessments of the activities that were begun prior to the opening of the facility. The observers seldom have to intervene. Other than a few scraped knees, no children have been injured.
Although adventure playgrounds were relatively common in the U.K. during the 1940’s, their popularity faded until the last few years when they have enjoyed a modest resurgence. In the article in The Atlantic, author Hanna Rosin chronicles the de-riskification of playgrounds in America that began in the 1970’s. The process was fueled by an unfortunate incident in which a toddler supervised by his mother fell off a 12-foot playground slide in a Chicago playground. The child sustained a significant and permanent brain injury and received a multimillion dollar award in the suit that followed.
A commentary in Pediatrics entitled “X-rated playgrounds?” ( Pediatrics 1979;64:961 ) and a crusade by its author, Theodora Briggs Sweeney culminated in the release of the Handbook for Public Playground Safety (U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, 1981) which listed in minute detail guidelines for dimensions and materials for playground equipment and play surfaces. Although these were only “guidelines,” only the most foolish manufacturer would ignore them. Little thought was given to the validity of the alarming statistics that had prompted these changes. What were the denominators? Can you compare 1970’s hospital data with those from the 1950’s when injured children were managed at home or in their doctors’ offices?
Regardless of the validity of the data, the result was that these redesigned playgrounds offered so little sense of risk that they were abandoned by all but the youngest children. Numerous studies suggest that by eliminating risk or at least the appearance of risk, we are robbing children of important learning experiences on which they can build fuller, more creative, successful, and less anxiety-dominated lives. I urge you to look at that Atlantic article for a more robust description of the evidence.
I suspect that you may be a bit uncomfortable with 8-year-old boys playing with fire, but do you agree that we need to seriously rethink our attempts to protect children from the ordinary risks of an active life? Or do you think those of us who believe children will benefit from more perceived risk are just a bunch of fogys who begin every other sentence, “When I was your age … .”
Do you encourage parents to allow their children to walk to school unattended? Do you caution parents about being overprotective? Have I ignited a spark of concern in you, or am I just playing with fire?
Dr. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine, for nearly 40 years. He has authored several books on behavioral pediatrics, including “Coping with a Picky Eater.” E-mail him at email@example.com .