A Bubble Wrapped Life
“Be careful!” “Stop that!” “Not so high!” While car crashes are a leading cause of death, play is not. In fact, children are more likely to require medical attention for a stair-related injury than play. They are also more likely to need medical attention for an injury resulting from an organized sport then play. Therefore, as parents and professionals, our approach must be one of keeping children as safe as necessary, rather than as safe a possible.
Development with a protective bubble wrap prevents children from developing the lifelong skills necessary to thrive in the world. When we think of the world before politicians, bureaucrats and lawyers became intoxicated by the exercise of power over children lives, there was a level of acceptable risk. There was freedom in play and opportunities for children to face fear head on. Children were energized by the desire to accomplish something challenging and discover something meaningful. They were not motivated by the temporary pleasure of external rewards so prevalent in today’s culture. Risky play brought its own intrinsic rewards.
While there is danger in this world, the world is not pervasively dangerous. Many things that were once the quintessential features of childhood, such as swings, see saws, and merry-go-rounds where children ran as fast as the could, and if they had some luck hopped on, and if not, they were dragged, are now relics of bygone days. Why? Do we not trust that our children can learn to walk at a safer distance from a moving swing? Do we not believe that our children can learn to hold tighter to the bar on the merry-go-round or to let go instead of being dragged? Is it the children who are scared, or are adults anxious about giving children a chance to manage risks on their own?
So what is risk and what is a danger or hazard? A risk is something that is possible for the child to negotiate. A hazard is something that is inherently dangerous and needs adult remediation, such as leaving children unsupervised on a pond with thin ice. Running in front of a moving car is a real danger; an exposed tree root is not. Playing with matches when you are four-years old is a real danger; playing in a puddle or out in the rain is not. Pushing a child off a cliff is danger; walking up a slide is not. But since fear, particularly the fear of litigation abounds, we deny millions of children the reward that comes with risk. We deny them opportunities they deserve and are capable of navigating. Instead, we have a responsibility to make sure children are safe but not at the expense of all risk, especially acceptable risk.
We have reached the time when we need to gain a better perspective based in the wisdom gained from generations of people living their daily lives. It begins with understanding that to develop means to unfold gradually and when we ignore what children are ready to learn or experience, we put their development at risk for no reason. In their developmental process, most children pursue the challenges that are within their abilities, and stop when fear rises. Therefore, safety is not about removing all risk from the lives of our kids, but empowering them with the tools they need to effectively assess and address the risks that surround them. Childhood and the play of children is risky business, whether climbing trees, swinging on vines or swings, sliding on sleds, riding bikes, working with simple tools, swimming in the ocean, building a campfire, roughhousing, playing hide and seek, or having access to apps and social media.
Owner, The Fitzgerald Institute Of Lifelong Learning.