Risky play and skinned knees key to healthy child development, experts say
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Here’s what kids at play have always liked to do: Race, climb, wrestle, hang, throw, balance, fence with sticks, jump from heights and gravitate toward sharp objects. Ideally, while escaping the watchful eye of grown-ups.
Here’s what today’s kids hear when they’re even flirting with such pursuits: Slow down, get down, put that down. No throwing, no sticks allowed, don’t jump from there. Don’t touch, that’s too dangerous, be careful. And for goodness sake, don’t go anywhere without an adult.
In the last generation, adults have been consumed with protecting kids against all odds. But now, some child injury prevention experts are warning too much bubble wrap may be thwarting healthy development.
“The way we’re treating children isn’t conducive to raising kids that are going to be independent and able to get out in the world and manage risks for themselves,” says Mariana Brussoni, an associate professor at University of British Columbia.
As a developmental psychologist working in injury prevention for the last decade, she sees both sides. So in her research and recent workshops across the country, she’s reframing the conversation about risk.
Brussoni says it’s time to “lighten up a bit” and think about the downside of too many rules.
It’s a welcome shift for Cam Collyer, program director at the national non-profit Evergreen, which promotes healthy communities.
“Risk has become a bad word,” he says. “We need to start discussing its benefits. Everything pleasurable in childhood associated with a developmental stage comes with a risk. Learning is associated with risk.”
It’s early afternoon on a weekday in July, and Collyer is surrounded by swarms of school-age kids attending Evergreen’s Green City Adventure Camp at the Brick Works site in the Don Valley.
One mud-covered klatch of campers pours buckets of water on the ground to test the strength of the dam they’ve built. Others are dragging logs, bricks and planks over to their fort.
The 10-year-olds recently finished whittling sticks they found in the nearby ravine — with real knives. Then they burned designs onto them using magnifying glasses heated by the sun. At this camp, kids and counsellors ride bikes through the ravine trails and get soaked in the creek. The also learn to build campfires. And yes, they are supervised and taught safety protocols.
But they don’t have the same skills their parents did because they haven’t been given the same freedom to try things. Managing risk is like climbing a ladder, says Collyer. They need to go one rung at a time, and that’s what this camp provides.
In the last few years it’s become evident that overprotecting kids has amounted to trading one set of risks for another.
Parents may think kids are safer now, but they’re also less active and less fit than ever before, which has sent skyrocketing the risks of obesity and other physical and mental health problems.
These days it’s not unheard of for daycares to keep kids off the monkey bars, or for elementary schools to ban everything from balls to snow forts in the schoolyard.
State-of-the-art playgrounds with rubberized ground and low equipment may have few hazards, but they also have little play or learning value for kids who visit day after day.
“There’s no challenge, no stimulation,” says Brussoni.
This spring, Grade 8 students at a Toronto school lost their three-day graduation trip to a nature camp because canoeing, kayaking, campfires and archery were deemed too risky.
Around the world things are starting to change, but slowly.
Britain’s Health and Safety Executive introduced a new policy in 2012 recognizing the importance of “managed risk” in children’s play to keep them engaged and learning.
“When planning and providing play opportunities, the goal is not to eliminate risk, but to weigh up the risks and benefits,” the policy said. “No child will learn about risk if they are wrapped in cotton wool.”
In another nod to the benefits of risk-taking, a New Zealand school adopted recess without rules and found no increase in injuries but a decline in behavioural problems.
And at a global summit on child physical activity this spring, a leading Canadian child obesity expert warned about the health risks of over-policing play.
Research shows that as the perception of danger increases, so does kids’ level of activity, Ian Janssen, professor of kinesiology and public health at Queen’s University, told the conference.
Even parents who want to loosen the reins often face peer pressure to hover and a lack of like-minded parents around them.
One mother of three in east-end Toronto told Torstar News Service her eldest children, ages 10 and 8, walk to school, know how to whittle and play unsupervised with neighbourhood kids in the ravine behind their houses.
But she wouldn’t allow her name to be published, fearing her kids could become targets because it’s so unusual for kids to be outdoors without an adult hovering.
Some child injury prevention experts say safety was never supposed to discourage exercise or skinned knees.
“We want kids to be out, we want kids to be active and engaged in whatever they’re doing, says Pam Fuselli, vice-president at Parachute.
“We just don’t want serious, life-altering, life-ending injuries. Bumps, bruises, scrapes even simple breaks are part of acquiring skills.”
Norwegian early childhood researcher Ellen Sandseter argues risky play has a critical evolutionary function of motivating children to learn. By exhilarating kids, it gradually exposes them to things they fear, so they can learn to cope and master new skills. Fear protects them from situations they aren’t ready to handle. But thrill encourages them to keep striving.
She has identified six key categories of risky play that children are drawn to: speed, heights, dangerous tools (knives, axes, rope), dangerous elements (cliffs, water, fire), rough-and-tumble play and disappearing from adult range.
While that doesn’t mean you should hand your 6-year-old an axe, she suggests depriving children of the thrill of testing themselves in a managed environment may lead to a generation of anxious, fearful adults.
Brussoni, who was in Norway this summer meeting with Sandseter, wants parents to consider a few things. Traffic is a legitimate worry, but most traffic injuries and fatalities happen when kids are inside vehicles. More kids walking, biking and playing outside creates a safer “all eyes on the street” community and can change driver attitudes.
Head injuries do happen, but most, by far, take place among kids playing organized sports such as hockey rather than in playgrounds. While abduction by a stranger is always cited as a top fear, it’s extremely rare.
The key, she says, is distinguishing between hazards — unexpected dangers like dirty needles in a playground or broken equipment that kids can’t be expected to consider — and reasonable risks.
With her own kids, ages 7 and 6, she subscribes to the notion of making things “as safe as necessary, but not as safe as possible.”
“It’s about trusting their own instincts more, peeling away those layers of other people’s expectations, and guilt and letting kids be kids.”