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We Made Kids So Safe That It’s Hurting Them

We Made Kids So Safe That It’s Hurting Them

Kids need to climb trees, jump off things and ride their bikes fast. That’s what the Canadian Paediatric Society is recommending in a white paper out today: “Healthy childhood development through outdoor risky play.”

If that sounds positively radical — and also commonsensical — you’re right. Mariana Brussoni, a developmental psychologist at the University of British Columbia, has been championing risky play for more than a decade. But the Paediatric Society was never quite ready to endorse her call to action.

It was only when faced with soaring rates of childhood anxiety, depression, obesity and even myopia that the pediatricians came to “realize that letting kids go out and play could be a way to deal with a lot of these challenging issues,” Brussoni says.

That’s because the doctors came to recognize two truths:

1 — Children are hard-wired to play because it is developmental gold. It teaches them how to take action, get along and solve problems.

2 — Replacing rollicking, kid-led play with structured, adult-led play was a mistake. It deprived children of a million opportunities to exercise their autonomy. And in terms of physical injuries, it turned out to be MORE dangerous.

When kids play without adult intervention it increases their social-emotional skills, says the report. What’s more: It can “significantly reduce children’s risk for elevated anxiety.”

Play does that in a rather obvious way, says Peter Gray, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Boston College and a co-founder with me of Let Grow. “From an evolutionary standpoint, why do children want to play in a risky way? Because this is how they develop a little courage,” Gray says. “They deliberately put themselves into situations where they’re feeling fear so that, unconsciously, they can have a sense of control over it: ‘I can feel this fear and survive it.’ So when they face a real emergency, they are slightly less likely to panic. And they are also less fearful because they know, ‘Something can happen and I can manage it.'”

The Canadian report recommends pediatricians promote risky play as preventative medicine for mental health.

But what about the physical danger risky play involves? How can doctors — and parents, and schools — ignore that?

By looking at statistics, says Brussoni. “From 2007 to 2022, there were two deaths from falls on the playground, and 480 deaths from motor vehicle crashes.” That is, kids as car passengers. And there were zero deaths from falls from trees.

And as the Paediatrics paper notes: “The research has established that children are less likely to be injured while engaging in unstructured activities than when playing an organized sport.”

Sports are more dangerous than goof-around play? It’s starting to sound like the real risk in “risky play” is that our culture has been busy outlawing it. Think of signs like the one in suburban Washington, D.C., that cautions: “Adult supervision required. Do not climb on slides. No jumping from swings.” And, on the monkey bars, “Do not skip rings or rungs.”

So how can we renormalize free play?

Brussoni tells parents to start with an “underwhelming” experiment. “Let them out into the backyard while you’re watching for a few minutes.” The next day, sit in the kitchen and don’t watch. You and your kids will get used to time apart.

Another way is to ask your kids’ school to start a “Let Grow Play Club.” That’s when the school stays open for mixed-age free play. An adult is there, but like a lifeguard. They don’t organize the games or solve the spats. Our free implementation guide is here.

If even cautious Canada is saying safety culture has swung too far, it’s time to jump off the swing.

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  • Avatar
    Centaur
    January 26, 2024, 3:46 pm

    Hard to believe that the medical field has become so inundated with such tools!

    Foolish and misguided so-called professionals who've bowed to political pressure over common sense and tested science, and who collectively, both in the USA and Canada, have put our children into the deepest perils by overwhelmingly negating their oaths to "do no harm."

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  • Avatar
    Tionico
    January 26, 2024, 8:25 pm

    The typical pubic school (and far too many private schools) coddle and restrict and deny and wart over the kids so badly it is almost criminal. They figure everything out for them, then impose it on them as "rules and regulations". No wonder so many grow up freakazoid. They have never tested and learned their limits, or where that "thin red line" falls between "whew I barely made it that time" and a non-fatal "crash and burn". I know I learned so much because I was allowed to learn my own limits. and yes, sometimes I stood up with road rash. BUT I stood up, and had learned something. Taught myself how to rid my Dad's huge bit bicycle when I was a skinny runt of an 8 year old. Musta gotten about thee square yards of road rash. Took me three days of PAINFUL persistence. but I mastered it. Could not sit on the seat, lowered all the way down, and reach both pedals. Today my Dad would have gone to jail for "child endangerment". That bike got me to school (4 miles each way) in traffic (bike paths had not yet even been imagined). That bike was my ticket to get anywhere. In high school I got a $30 Italian ten speed, and it was like getting a brand new pair of wings. Probably sophomore year I was out on it, and it started raining hard. I dropped a dime and called home. Asked Mom to come pick me up. She said OK, it will take me a bit to round up the mids and get them in the car. (I think fie younger ones at that time). She came, I loaded the bike into the back of the old Ford wagon, we got home. After it was all over she politely informed me that unless they had to call the ambulance she'd not ever come to bget my bike again. I believed her. By the time I finished high school I had cycled all over Orange,Riverside, San Bernardino, and Los Angeles Counties. Ten thousand miles my senior year of high school. I had learned how, and trained myself, to ride long distances fast. Hundred mile days were not unusual. Sixty years later I am still healthy and strong and reasonably fit. I wear the same size clothes I did the day I graduated high school. Makes some folks mad, but that's their problem.
    Watch puppies, kittens, coyote kits, birdlets, fawns, sea otters, etc, play and tumble and grown and chew and nip and dance and body block.. they are learning the very skills that will enable them to avoid and escape trouble, find and capture their food, protect their own young. Put one of those kits or pups in a small wire pen, feed them kibbles and water out of a bowl, then release them into the wild when they are almost grown. Supper time….. for some OTHER critter.

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  • Avatar
    Elaine
    January 30, 2024, 4:14 pm

    I was fortunate enough to grow up at a time when children were considered gifts from God although we were not pampered nor allowed to rule the home as children are today. We were allowed to retain our innocence by not being bombarded daily with all of the garbage and demon-inspired crackpots theories in school, in the home, at the movies, or on television. Children were allowed to be children. We didn't wear bike helmets or seat belts or fed the toxic junk that kids have to eat today. We respected our parents and our elders. We were expected to do chores according to our age and capabilities and never expected to get something for nothing. We were taught to appreciate what we had and to be kind and generous to others as we lived in a Christian inspired society. It is incredible how children are now totally abused-by parents, teachers, government bureaucrats, and others in positions of authority. In fact, I would argue that our society is basically anti-child as we continue to abort hundreds every day and think nothing of it.

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  • Avatar
    Wheelz
    February 3, 2024, 10:07 am

    When I was in school, starting first grade in 1980, we had playgrounds with giant tires we rolled each other around in. Monkey bars as high as a two-story building. We rode our bikes all over the neighborhoods and even carried our BB guns around without being shot by police. Bicycles were not throwaways. If they needed to be fixed, you either learned to fix it or you didn't ride. My mom has a pic of me and my friends in the backyard with tools, all of us working on our bikes together. 20 years later, she took a pic of me and all my friends at our shop with Harley's setting everywhere while we changed oils and tune ups. Good times.

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