Dear Dr. Debbie,
I just learned about Adventure Playgrounds, popular in the United Kingdom after World War II, which are supposed to promote child-led problem solving as the kids roll barrels and tires around, stack debris for climbing on, and bounce on old mattresses. Instead of a soccer coach leading drills on a well-groomed field, under the watchful eyes of the children’s parents, a lone “play worker” stands by the rubble heap in case of emergency and basically lets kids do whatever they want. The point is to let the children experience risk and build self-confidence.
Do you think children today are excessively protected from their own play?
Don’t miss last week’s column Learning to share — Good Parenting
There are many benefits to outdoor free play for children — far beyond fresh air and exercise — and they are getting harder to come by. While there could be specific dangers a parent would naturally protect a child from – road traffic, steep drop-offs, broken glass, deep waters, a known child molester, even a malicious child — it would be wonderful if every child had unconstrained play spaces to go to.
Lady Marjory Allen, a landscape architect and children’s advocate, first promoted Adventure Playgrounds. She felt children could be better prepared to conquer risks if they had such play experiences. A new Adventure Playground opened recently in Wales, apparently to the delight of the local children. I think it would take some very adventurous adults to try this concept around here.
There may be spaces already in use for unstructured and unrestrained play — grassy fields to run across, trees to climb and hide behind, dirt lots to play games in, creeks to cross over, tires to make towers of, wooden fences to balance on and chain link fences to climb over. Some children may be lucky enough to have access to wooden planks, pallets and cable spools to rearrange as their hearts desire. All too often, however, children are driven to and from programs and classes that keep them well contained.
Child advocates consider it a crisis that children today have too few spaces and blocks of time to just play freely with one another. Developmental psychologist Peter Gray from Boston College attributes some of today’s greed-based economic problems to “a society that has forgotten how to play.” Gray believes that unstructured, non-competitive social play may be intrinsic to human survival, past and future. When children play together, it fosters a concern for the feelings and wellbeing of others, he said.
I have observed the shift since the “benign neglect” that was afforded me during most of my out-of-school hours two generations ago to today’s ultra-supervised and hyper-sanitized childhoods. We had so much fun! There were older children who would, at times, organize the games and fort building, and teach younger ones the rules of fair play. The bigger kids were also adept at assessing booboos, knowing when to “brush it off” and when to get adult assistance. And there was plenty of play territory to work with such as a dirt pile behind a shed to dig roads for toy cars, or a backyard fence to balance on and sing Top 40 songs. The freedom nicely complimented the high standards of proper behavior expected in school and at the family dinner table.
In addition to the freedom to decide what to do with ourselves, we exercised imagination to create miniature communities in the dirt and leaves, we developed conflict negotiation skills to work together without adult guidance, we honed our inventiveness with found objects for kickball bases and for playing house, and we sharpened project management skills to build a fort or organize a backyard talent show. We definitely learned some laws of nature including adapting to weather conditions, testing the strength of different thicknesses of cardboard (for forts or for grass sledding), and how to tell time by the sun — all around the year.
I like that Adventure Playgrounds have play workers to keep an eye on things but otherwise not intervene in the play. Children shouldn’t be too far from adult assistance if needed. After all, despite the federal guidelines that have been in place now for several decades, children still find ways to get hurt on carefully constructed and padded playgrounds.
I think something we had in place that children today don’t always have is the sense that we knew we were always surrounded by adults who cared about us. Although we could take risks, our parents, our friends’ parents, and even neighbors without children were, if needed, just inside almost any house on the block. And they were the same neighbors year after year. Today’s families might not know their neighbors; so if a child got in a jam a block or more from home, it may as well be in the next county.
Unfortunately, I don’t see Adventure Playgrounds likely to start popping up around here. This would frighten the grown-ups. Acquiring an unused lot and a collection of junk would be easy. Even a stipend for play workers during “open” hours could come from county or community budgets. Working parents in the neighborhood might pay annual dues to insure that a dedicated adult was on hand during those nerve-wracking unsupervised after school hours. But I can’t picture my own community quelling fears of tetanus from rusted metal and lawsuits from injured children’s parents. And other than to a child, let’s face it, these playgrounds are not pretty.
Maybe the best we can do is to continue to advocate for parks and playgrounds.
Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.
What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at Betsy@jecoannapolis.com