Ask any parent if they would like their kids to be exposed to more risks, and they’ll likely look at you like you just offered them non-organic milk in a BPA-saturated plastic cup.
But a growing body of international research suggests we are supervising, scheduling, rubber surfacing and otherwise bubble wrapping our kids into incompetence. And that our fear of seeing them hurt only makes them more fearful, not safer. According to research cited in The Atlantic, “The final irony is that our close attention to safety has not in fact made a tremendous difference in the number of accidents children have.”
So, in an effort to swing the pendulum back the other way and raise more resilient, confident and independent kids, some risk-embracing schools and communities are setting up “Adventure Playgrounds”—sometimes dirty, often seemingly dangerous areas where even preschoolers freely toss rocks, construct forts using two-by-fours and cement bricks, and work with real scissors, hammers and nails. Said one British teacher to the The New York Times of nursery schoolers who use knives, saws and sharp-edged tape dispensers: “They normally only cut themselves once.”
At one such “adventure playground” called the Land in Wales, five-year-olds happily start fires in tin drums and swing on a tattered rope across a creek (or try to, fail and fall into frigid water). Watched from afar by employees who are trained to step in only when a child is truly in harm’s way, “the custom…is for parents not to intervene,” per The Atlantic. “In fact, it’s [best] for parents not to come at all.”
At play:ground, a setup on New York’s Governors Island, children play freely with nails, towers of loose tires, screwdrivers, hand drills, saws and clamps. “There’s a difference between risk and hazard,” one of the parent-organizers explained. That particular park employs “playworkers” at a ratio of one to ten kids to quietly supervise and remove rusty nails and splintered wood. But, as in the U.K., they step in only when asked or to prevent serious injury (a rarity, believe it or not).
The benefits of such unstructured, risky play are many. It combats obesity, builds motor skills, teaches children to realistically assess risk, inoculates them (via a kind of exposure therapy) against a fear of heights and separation, and shows them they can keep themselves safe. At one New Zealand school, as part of an academic experiment, administrators agreed to “suspend all playground rules, allowing the kids to run, climb trees, slide down a muddy hill, jump off swings and play in a ‘loose-parts pit’ that was like a mini adventure playground,” reports The Atlantic. “The teachers feared chaos, but in fact what they got was less naughtiness and bullying—because the kids were too busy and engaged to want to cause trouble [emphasis ours].”
In such almost unthinkable situations, kids build confidence by testing—and surpassing—their limits. “If we want our kids to be curious, motivated, resilient, brave,” one Adventure Playground organizer told The Times, “we need to give them opportunities to do that.” The goal of their play is not to get a grown-up’s approval but to prove to themselves what they’re capable of. And that’s something no scheduled, supervised playdate or tennis lesson can give them. That’s everything.