As kids in the 1970s we would head to the park minus adults all day, climbing trees, checking out creeks and hurling down hills on bikes and billy carts. I had a boy’s bike, skateboard, pogo stick and home-made sling shots. We climbed trees, rode bikes for kilometres and walked to shops across busy roads. My three siblings and I had endless minor scrapes and one gashed his leg pretty badly on his bike. But no-one broke a limb and we are all now as tough as nails physically and mentally.
Fast forward and my three kids are wimps. They are not good bike riders, don’t go to the park alone and want a bandaid at the slightest sign of a scratch. They wouldn’t know a billy cart if they fell over one and have only seen skateboards in shops. And I don’t even consider myself a soft parent!
University of Technology Sydney engineer Dr David Eager says part of the problem with today’s kids is their playgrounds are boring and too safe. He says over-zealous fun police have cut out all the exciting bits, and parents compound this by not letting kids do anything that could even slightly hurt them. As a result many children are not developing a sense of adventure or learning to cope with minor scrapes, bumps and bruises.
Dr Eager says taking risks in the playground helps develop problem solving, self-esteem, persistence, resilience, the ability to handle dangerous situations and a love of exercise. While he doesn’t want to encourage serious injuries and says equipment must meet Australian standards, he wants a return of “scary” elements like merry-go-rounds and swings with long chains. “Child development involves taking risks and children operating outside their comfort zone,” he says. “If children are prevented from taking risks they may stagnate…and development may be impeded.”
Children will have accidents regardless, and to a degree we must accept that. No-one wants serious injuries but as they say, no pain no gain. Children need to learn what is safe and what isn’t and part of this comes from trial and error.
If children don’t experience physical challenges how are they ever going to learn their limits? If you ride your bike too fast you might fall; if you climb too high it might be tricky to get down; if you wrestle too hard someone might get hurt.
School playgrounds have also come under fire. Largely due to the threat of litigation, some ban physical games, tree climbing, swings, slides or anything slightly risky. Such mollycoddling means kids are now less able to cope with adversity, and some rush to the school sick bay with the slightest sign of a scratch. My oldest daughter says this sort of thing is relatively common. “One time there was a sooky la la in my grade and he wanted to go to the sick bay for a paper cut,” she says.
My kids find it hard to believe that our generation basically only went to the sick bay with concussion or broken limbs. As I tell them, it was a rite of passage to learn from our physical scrapes. Now if a kid is hurt many parents want someone or something to blame; a school, another child or a “faulty” playground. And that’s not teaching our children a good lesson at all.
Cheryl Critchley is the author of Unspoil Your Kids; Escape the Parent Trap (Wilkinson Publishing, $9.95). Available at newsagents.