If you're around kids, you likely hear it
nearly every day. Kids being told not to run, to get down from
there, no playing tag because they may hurt themselves, stay
away from sharp objects, or basically stop doing whatever seems
exciting or daring at the time - all in the name of responsible
parenting or because someone might get hurt. However, it turns
out that our fear of children being harmed may result in less
creative and more fearful children while increasing their risks
to certain psychopathologies.
Beginning in 2011, Swanson Primary School in New Zealand submitted
itself to a university experiment. They agreed to suspend all
playground rules, allowing the kids to run, climb trees, jump
off swings, slide down a muddy hill, and play in a "loose-parts
pit" resembling a mini adventure playground. The teachers
feared chaos, but what they got instead was what they described
as less naughtiness and bullying. The principal explained that
the kids were too busy and engaged to want to cause trouble.
In Norway, Sandseter began observing and interviewing children
on playgrounds. In 2011, she published her results in a paper
called Children's Risky Play From an Evolutionary Perspective:
The Anti-Phobic Effects of Thrilling Experiences.
She concluded that children have a sensory need to feel danger
and excitement. This doesn't mean that what they do has to actually
be dangerous, only that they feel they are taking a great risk.
Engaging in these situations scares them, but they consequently
learn to overcome their fear.
her paper, Sandseter identifies six kinds of risky play:
- Exploring heights, or getting the bird's perspective, as
she calls it-high enough to evoke the sensation of fear.
- Handling dangerous tools-using sharp scissors or knives,
or heavy hammers that at first seem unmanageable but that kids
learn to master.
- Being near dangerous elements-playing near vast bodies of
water, or near a fire, so kids are aware that there is danger
- Rough-and-tumble play-wrestling, play-fighting-so kids learn
to negotiate aggression and cooperation.
- Speed-cycling or skiing at a pace that feels too fast.
- Exploring on one's own. This last one Sandseter describes
as the most important for the children. Explaining, "When
they are left alone and can take full responsibility for their
actions, and the consequences of their decisions, it's a thrilling
Sandseter points to evolutionary psychology. Children are
born with the instinct to take risks in play, because learning
to negotiate risk had been crucial in developing survival skills
throughout the ages. Young animals also learn life skills through
play. In another era, we would have had to learn to run from
danger, defend ourselves, and be independent at times. Even today,
growing up is a process of managing fears, calculating risks,
testing our physical and psychological boundaries, and learning
to make sound decisions. By taking risks in play, children are
effectively subjecting themselves to a form of exposure therapy
in order to overcome their fear by forcing themselves engage
in a range of activities which evoke fear.
If children never go through this process, a fear could potentially
turn into a phobia. Sandsete writes, "Our fear of children
being harmed may result in more fearful children and increased
levels of psychopathology".
She also cites a study showing that people who injured themselves
falling from heights when they were between 5 and 9 years old
are less likely to be afraid of heights at age 18. She adds,
"Risky play with great heights will provide a desensitizing
or habituating experience".
Other research also suggests overprotected kids grow up more
fearful, take fewer risks, and are less creative. Joe Frost,
an influential safety crusader, sums it up when he says, "Reasonable
risks are essential for children's healthy development".
The hyper vigilant attitudes and policies restricting kids' play
are seemingly not in the best interest of our children despite
the best of intensions.