My dear friend, Luke, sent me this article about The Land, an adventure playground in Wales. He thought I would find it interesting and just by reading the headline, I knew he was right.
“The Overprotected Kid… A preoccupation with safety has stripped childhood of independence, risk taking and discovery– without making it safer. A new kind of playground points to a better solution.”
Hanna Rosin, The Atlantic
I find myself constantly keeping my inner helicopter mom in check. I’m a typical first time mom. Most of my actions are methodical and deliberate. I’m really cautious. Likely as a result of this, my 17-month-old is also really cautious. He’s very mellow and is happy to quietly read a book. He’s essentially refusing to walk because he’s so much more comfortable crawling or cruising. He happily walks assisted while holding mine or his dad’s finger, without knowing that we’re not really providing any support and he’s practically walking on his own. He just seems comforted knowing that we’re there and is more confident trudging on with the support. He also hates to fall and he understands he’s more prone to falling when walking on his own. He’s just a sweet, calm, sensitive little boy.
From the moment I got a positive pregnancy test, my primary focus has been keeping Daniel healthy and safe. When I was pregnant, I kept a handy chart in my purse with the mercury levels of different types of fish. When he was born, I had a lengthy list of questions to ask our new pediatrician. When we brought him home, I placed my finger under his nose while he slept to make sure he was breathing… regularly. It sounds a bit neurotic, a bit nutty, but I think many first time moms can relate.
But, I want to raise a strong, independent child. I don’t want him to fear taking risks. I want him to have a sense of adventure. I want him to have fun and just be a kid. I also believe in the Montessori method of learning for young children and the idea of this playground seemed to be in touch with those philosophies. Then I felt my blood pressure slowly rise with anxiety as I read the article further…
“It’s still morning, but someone has already started a fire in the tin drum in the corner, perhaps because it’s late fall and wet-cold, or more likely because the kids here love to start fires. Three boys lounge in the only unbroken chairs around it; they are the oldest ones here, so no one complains. One of them turns on the radio—Shaggy is playing (Honey came in and she caught me red-handed, creeping with the girl next door)—as the others feel in their pockets to make sure the candy bars and soda cans are still there. Nearby, a couple of boys are doing mad flips on a stack of filthy mattresses, which makes a fine trampoline. At the other end of the playground, a dozen or so of the younger kids dart in and out of large structures made up of wooden pallets stacked on top of one another. Occasionally a group knocks down a few pallets—just for the fun of it, or to build some new kind of slide or fort or unnamed structure. Come tomorrow and the Land might have a whole new topography.”
Um, fire? Dirty mattresses? Shaggy?! The idea of my precious child playing in this place, with all these potential hazards, terrified me. It didn’t sound safe. The park near our house has a playground with plastic slides and rounded corners. That seems safe to me. Safe enough at least. I get pretty nervous he’s going to fall off this bee, so I stay close by.
So, the Land, this adventure playground, where I can drop off my kid to poke a fire with a stick freaked me OUT.
Then, I thought of my brother, Matt. He was an adventurous kid and a risk-taker from the beginning. But he didn’t have an adventure playground like the Land. So he started fires, found old mattresses to jump on and did all of those things anyway. He got in trouble. He broke his arm once. He got filthy every day. And it was OK. He happily reminisces about the calls from neighbors Mom received and as an adult, he still has a sense of adventure and childlike enthusiasm about him.
If Matt had the Land, maybe he wouldn’t have snuck matches out of the house and gotten into so much trouble. Maybe an adventure playground would have provided a safe environment for him to be the little hellion that he was.
At the Land, professionally trained “playworkers” supervise, but rarely intervene. The Land has been open for more than two years and despite the kids regularly partaking in these seemingly dangerous activities, there haven’t been any injuries beyond the occasional scraped knee. So while the Land initially scared the shit out of me because it seemed so dangerous, it’s actually no more dangerous than the park down the street.
The Land was actually designed by children and is filled with donated furniture, building supplies, and just a lot of junk– things the donor may have deemed not suitable for Goodwill, but wasteful to throw away. This is the stuff children want to play with.
The idea of a child preferring to play with some old tires rather than a giant, plastic tic-tac-toe board at a traditional playground seems to make as much sense to me as a child given a doll and preferring to play with the box. The doll is a doll. But, what about this box? Can it be something else? Like a hat, a car or a rocketship? Adventure playgrounds allow the child to use their imagination and express their natural curiosity.
Overprotecting our children has been a steady trend for years and the effects of this style have been damaging to kids while we haven’t seen a great decline in the number of accidents. Overprotected kids have been linked to obesity, anxiety, delayed maturity and decreased levels of confidence. Children who are given more free range are less likely to face these issues. Rosin described one example of this:
“…beginning in 2011, Swanson Primary School in New Zealand submitted itself to a university experiment and 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. 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, the principal said.”
I think overprotecting, in a way, feels natural because many parents are anxious and afraid. (raising my hand over here) We want to protect our children and keep them safe, but if hovering and limiting their play is counterproductive, why do it? Apparently we’re not doing our kids any favors.
I don’t expect to see an adventure playground like the Land to pop up in my area anytime soon. But I think the Land and the philosophy behind it can teach many of us an important lesson in allowing kids to be kids during this fleeting time and how we can keep them safe while fostering their need for independence and fun.