Please Kidshealth, give parents (and kids) a break

girl jumping off swingThe 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:

Sign outside Chatsworth House playground(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.

13 responses to “Please Kidshealth, give parents (and kids) a break

  1. Oh Tim, You express so well what i have been trying to convey for what seems like forever in my workplace and on my blog. In the case of my blog it appears that for the most part I am preaching to the converted with my relatively minor audience. On the other hand, the reach you have has the possibilitiy to impact of the thoughts and actions of so many.

    Real play = real enjoyment, learning and engagement.
    Pretend play (that where restrictions are enforced by adults and not role play) = limited opportunities for problem-solving, negotiation, compromise, teamwork and so many other valuable skills.

    Thank you for another great post.

  2. Marc Armitage

    Yep, agree, nice. That idea of mixed age groups in the same basic space is just so important that using a health and safety excuse for separating the ages simply shows up ignorance.

  3. Greg, Marc – thanks for the comments, and the positive feedback. Greg, I’m sure that Marc (a friend, kindred spirit and active online advocate) would agree that in our territory, an online audience is often made up largely of others who share our views. I suspect from the comments I get that this is true of my blog. Having been blogging for nearly a year, I’m mulling over these issues, and may have more to say at some point. For now, I’ll just say that – while we need to reach all the people we can – singing to the choir is not unimportant, as long as the tunes are good! And yours are, judging by what I read on your website.

  4. Tim, thanks for the mention here- I am always grateful when people give my messages an opportunity to reach a wider audience.

    As far as preaching to the choir goes, I’d have to say that I LOVE that sign from Chatsworth House and I do think it is necessary. There is a culture out there of looking for someone to blame for anything that goes wrong. The sign puts responsibility for the decision to play there squarely back where it belongs- on the child and the child’s parents. To have no sign, and just hope that parents will KNOW where responsibility lies, is a little fanciful in this age of litigation. Our audience here on the internet tends to be made up of the highly literate and contemplative, who have already thought about such issues- but in a public place, people need to be reminded of what we see as glaringly obvious.

    I think it’s a remarkably clever sign.

  5. Yes yes yes! I love this and completely agree. It’s such good advice to “remember your own childhood”. I’m always asking people this question: Would you let your kids play outside by themselves? (Answer almost inevitably “No”). And then, “At what age did you play outside without an adult?” For as long as any of us can remember, we were all allowed out (albeit with older siblings…I myself at 4 was under the “care” of my 6-year-old sister…we were free to make mud pies at the pond, roam around the neighborhood, play on the playground, etc.)

  6. Hi Rachel, thanks for stopping by here. Love your blog too! I do a lot of public speaking and training/running workshops, and always start by asking my audience to remember their favourite childhood places to play. It’s the right way to start almost any conversation or debate about childhood today. Of course, childhood is different today. But what these memories do is remind adults of children’s appetite for experience, adventure and freedom.

  7. It’s true. Those private outdoor spaces of childhood that were so essential. And where was I just reading about how kids need frequency, too, to really get attached to nature and care about it? I think it must have been Richard Louv. That it can’t just be vacations or trips, it has to be an everyday type of thing, a habit to spend time outside. I really hope this movement continues to build.

    • Rachel – you are absolutely right – and the research backs this up. If you haven’t already, you may want to take a look at my posts on nature. Use the nature tag – and also check out this link to find out more about my work for the Greater London Authority on reconnecting children with nature. My Sowing the Seeds report sets out a blueprint for how the capital should respond to Louv’s arguments.

  8. I’ve just discovered that Alex from Playgroundology wrote in praise of swings just a few days before my post. Here’s a quote from his elegant piece: “There are milestones – graduating from baby to big kids swing, getting on unassisted, giving another child a push, pumping and propelling through the air unaided, standing up swinging, twosome riding one person standing and one sitting, helicoptering and flying off the seat into a heart stopping jump.” I should check my RSS feed more often.

  9. Tim, after my risk-benefit assessment workshop in Tonbridge this week we all visited a nearby town park and whilst there’s always lots of things that could be done to improve any play site, I thought they had tried really hard with limited resources to open the area up to all ages, opportunities, interests and abilities. Yes there was a fence around part of the park but the space inside was huge and there were no barriers, apart from the ones a child might place on themself, between standard kit and more `natural features’. The site provided for as many different children and their play activities as it could with no formal age segregation or negative signage. It’s encouraging to see some local authorities are pushing gently back against risk aversion.

  10. I already frowned at the first page:
    “Young kids (and sometimes older ones) can’t always gauge distances properly and aren’t capable of foreseeing dangerous situations by themselves. Older kids like to test their limits on the playground, so it’s important for an adult to be there to keep them in check.”

    The ‘testing the limits’ thing seems so ironic. Because if you don’t test them, how on earth are you to ever learn where they are?! And of course the same goes for gauging distances etc. They talk about it as if it is something that just comes with age or can be learnt through verbal instruction.

  11. Pingback: Hurt, blame, stupidity: when being a free-range parent does not go to plan | Rethinking Childhood

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