Think back to some of your favorite childhood memories- there might be some great vacations in there, some good times roasting marshmallows and maybe catching fireflies in jars. You also may be thinking of moments when you were outside playing with friends doing things that you might find yourself making sure your child avoids now. How did we survive our childhoods without our parents hovering over us making sure we were being safe!?
And some of these “dangerous” activities were ones that were part of our everyday lives. I’m sure so many of us look back and smile thinking of running alongside those metal merry-go-rounds as fast as we could, jumping on just as it was picking up speed. Extra happiness points if you tilted your head back and felt that extra thrill. Unfortunately, these merry-go-rounds are quite difficult to find on today’s neighborhood playgrounds.
Many parents make a big effort to pack up for an afternoon at the park- water bottles, snacks, and bandaids are just a few items we need on standby, but so often kids come whining to their parents not even ten minutes later saying how bored they are. Apparently, going up the stairs and down the slides over and over, running across a not-so-wobbly footbridge, and climbing a rope ladder to nowhere aren’t the most captivating challenges. I don’t really blame these kids for feeling underwhelmed. I probably would have felt that way too.
But are playgrounds today really so different from the ones we grew up on?
Unfortunately, yes. While slides have been a strong staple for decades now and don’t seem to be going anywhere anytime soon, many of the most beloved playground items have been eliminated in the name of safety like, merry-go-rounds, seesaws, and tire swings to name a few. Even regular swings have gone missing from so many schoolyards.
But isn’t it better this way? Doesn’t safer equipment mean our children are safer?
Ummmm……. NOPE! Well, ok, fine. Maybe in the short term, yes. Your child won’t fall off a tire swing or bang his bottom on the ground when his buddy gets off the seesaw before he’s prepared.
Well, that sounds great! I can sit back and relax now (Cue some calming spa music)
Wait just a second though. Kids may get fewer bumps and bruises by avoiding “dangerous” play, but there are so many reasons kids actually benefit from risky play.
Risky play is how children learn so many lifelong skills like problem solving, working with friends as a team, and how their actions affect others (remember being the one getting up from the seesaw and leaving your friend to bump their bottom on the ground?) They learn how to get back up when they’ve fallen, and they figure out how to overcome a challenge- feeling so proud to master an activity that just felt impossible, like crossing the monkey bars. Their bodies also learn how to balance, coordinate using the right and left sides, determine timing and even respond to centrifugal force (yup, they’re getting a physics education too!!).
One of the biggest pieces missing from a lot of risky play is spinning opportunities. It’s just a fact that kids love spinning in circles (Note the mention of all the missing tire swings and merry-go-rounds here). This changes as we get older, most of you reading this can probably say your life will still be complete if never swing on a tire swing ever again. But for our children, spinning, or rotary movement, is a BIG deal.
Rotary motion and other activities that allow for our heads to move in different ways against gravity, play a very important part in the development of our vestibular sense. The vestibular system is responsible for developing our sense of balance. Ironically, more spinning and moving in all different ways against gravity helps us learn to stand still and balance while riding on moving airplanes and trains. More vestibular input leads to better balance as our children get older. Limiting these experiences for our children may help them avoid some bruises early on, but there can be a long lasting impact.
So what can I do if the playgrounds near me don’t offer these experiences?
Don’t worry. There’s no need to put your home on the market! We don’t need colorful equipment to provide vestibular input and risky play opportunities. Somehow children find their own risks all the time! Children are wired to move in ways that build their brains and bodies. They love rolling in the grass, have spinning contests to see who can stay up the longest, tumble onto couch cushions, hang upside down from backyard swing sets, and climb trees. We just need to remember that our children will only find these opportunities if we step aside and let them. When we hover around calling out “be careful!” or “watch out!”, they don’t learn to trust their own instincts. They don’t learn to figure out their own balance reactions and timing skills. They need to learn and we need to let them.
But what if my child will just run into the deep end of a pool and can’t swim? Are you saying I should stand back and just watch? ARE YOU CRAZY!?
No, of course not. Children are obviously not fully aware of their surroundings and capabilities- they are not the ones in charge. I am not advising standing back and letting your child run into the middle of the street to challenge himself if he can get across before the moving car comes- not a good way to practice timing and gross motor abilities. What we can do is set up a safe environment for them to take age-appropriate risks.
Kids today are growing up very differently than the last generation- in way more ways than one. How children play is absolutely one of these ways. Gone are most of the more dangerous pieces of equipment like merry-go-rounds, seesaws and tire swings, leaving behind very linear and basic obstacles to navigate. As a result of the extra caution to keep our kids safe, children don’t have as many opportunities to practice all the skills gained from taking risks during play. And while we can’t go changing all the playgrounds in the neighborhood, we can encourage more independent play in and out of our homes without calling out “stop!” “don’t!” “be careful!”