The US non-profit agency Kidshealth – which claims that it runs the #1 most visited website for children’s health and development – has eight web pages of guidance for parents on playground safety. Page 6 includes the following advice: “Kids should always sit in the swing, not stand or kneel. They should hold on tightly with both hands while swinging, and when finished swinging, stop the swing completely before getting off.” Presumably Kidshealth would not be amused by this set of swing-jumping images on flickr (where I found the above photo by Karli Feder).
In a recent post, Australian educator and blogger Aunt Annie made a crucial point about the supervision of children at play. She tells how children at one centre built some slides out of planks of wood, and then started playing on them. Different children had different limits, but each one worked out for themselves what they were willing to try. She explains: “In the absence of an adult voice crowing “Be careful!” at 30 second intervals, they took responsibility themselves.”
Her point is nicely echoed by a quote from the Seattle-based preschool teacher and blogger Teacher Tom. In a post called Plastic Hammers – which describes the care with which his children use real hammers – he said: “Responsibility is one of those things that is either real or it doesn’t exist.”
When we bemoan the decline in outdoor play, or the bubble-wrapping of children, it is usually parents who get all the blame. This is flat-out wrong, as I have argued before. What is true is that some parents – though not all, as Lenore Skenazy and her followers show – find it hard to back off from their kids. And the fact is that their position is often explicitly supported by ‘expert’ guidance.
Parents and carers reading such guidance may wonder how old their kids have to be before they can stop being actively supervised. Eight years old? Ten? 15? I am reminded of this sign, which I spotted some years ago outside a playground in Glasgow:
In fact, the developmental benefits of playing freely are well recognised by experts. The American Association of Pediatrics stated in a 2006 report: “As they master their world, play helps children develop new competencies that lead to enhanced confidence and the resiliency they will need to face future challenges.” Intriguingly, a research study published last year found that children in parks were more physically active when their parents were not around.
It is not hard to give more nuanced messages about supervision in play. The playground at Chatsworth House, a leading stately home and visitor attraction in England’s Peak District, has this sign outside its entrance:
(Though one could question whether any sign is needed at all – a point made by several people when I shared this image on my Facebook page a while back).
Some child safety organisations take a more enlightened view of playground safety. Here in the UK, the Child Accident Prevention Trust states on its website: “we are vigorous in our support of the view that children need to be exposed to challenges and take risks to promote their physical development.” The only play safety advice I could find on its web pages is admirably balanced, and brief: “Everyone loves a trip to the park, or a visit to a playground. Find playgrounds that are well looked after and have equipment which they’ll find interesting.”
It would be tempting to speculate on the reasoning behind advice like that from Kidshealth, and to start debating litigation, the blame culture, and fear of loss of reputation. But I do not want to go there. I would simply like to ask that the advice be rewritten. Good people at Kidshealth: please, can you make your guidance on playground safety more helpful, more playful, more balanced – and shorter?
I will end by making a similar plea to all those who are tempted to think that being a good parent means being a controlling parent: please remember your own childhoods. Let kids have a bit more fun. And give parents a break. That way, we can all work together to help children on the road – the sometimes bumpy road – to being a confident, competent, resilient person.