|Image of The Land Provided by Erin Davis|
A few weeks ago, I linked up to the Atlantic’s story on The Land “adventure playground,” which has since received a lot of social media exposure so I wanted to start a conversation about the implications of risk and free-range parenthood that is so much more than a single post could do justice.
A fellow mother posted a picture of “The Land” playground to Facebook recently, with no context or links. Every single commenter was shocked at the apparently dangerous and unsanitary nature of the “adventure playground,” and I’ll admit, I was given to thoughts of tetanus and injury, but then again, when I was young I owned a gerbil and now all I think when I look at them is “rodents and teeth.” Its funny how our age changes our perspective — its surely not experience that has changed things, as I’ve never been bitten by a rodent, and I’ve never broken a bone or needed a tetanus shot despite my own childhood adventures.
If you’ve got a good amount of time, I’d highly recommend reading the article (or watching the documentary, coming soon),but if you’ve seen any of the pictures, you’ll easily understand: the Land is an “adventure park” of repurposed items that looks similar to a junk yard, but has the unique advantage of being equipped with “play workers” to watch and intervene only if the children are engaging in truly dangerous play. (Starting a fire in one of the metal barrels is not considered intervention-worthy.)
While I disagree with some parts of the execution of the park, there are many aspects of its spirit that I admire. I do fear that the people who romanticize notions of truly free-range childhoods forget Lord of the Flies-style hierarchies and cliques, uncomfortable secrets, and arbitrarily dismiss the injuries and losses suffered by children and families as a result of such adventures (not as high as some would claim, but very real losses for the families affected). But in the other camp, I think many of the people who are abhorred at the ideas ingrained in the Land doubt children’s capacities and abilities to learn natural consequences, and are driven by a good amount of fear. (I get that. After all, as JFK said, “to have a child is to give fate a hostage.”)
Many international tourist attractions, such as the Irish Blarney Stone, have had to make serious changes to how they are set-up because of tourists who are used to uber-safe conditions at home that don’t require personal discretion or responsibility regarding one’s own safety. While, of course, we want to trust that the park equipment that our children are playing on is safe, we also need to give children opportunities to engage in personal discretion and judgment. Because children will crave and encounter real risk at some point in their lives, and the deprivation of it in their childhood can lead to some scary issues in their teen and young adult years. The difference we see and the reason why its important to engage in age-appropriate risk at a young age is that the risks we see over-protected adolescents and teenagers taking are emotional risks and risks that involve drugs, alcohol, and vehicles.
|Image of The Land provided by Erin Davis|
Risk also allows for rapid brain development. Children “think on their feet” and process information quicker in these seemingly risky scenarios, which contributes to a whole brain development. Children who don’t engage in these types of “risky play” scenarios are not privy to the neurological maturation that these children experience. Children also get immediate, natural feedback in these scenarios which they can personally understand and interpret, unlike many of our contrived social situations that children can feel lost within. Teenagers who have been raised with trust and empowered to engage in risky play as children will have more neurological advantages than sheltered children when it comes to self-regulation and attraction to risky behaviours.
By allowing a child to engage in risk, you’re not creating an “adrenaline junkie,” you’re allowing them to satiate a need and develop discretion and confidence that will serve them well as they grow older. I want my daughter to grow up believing that she is confident and capable, and experiencing true exhilaration through what I deem “safe risks.” After inevitable injuries or scares we talk about our choices and what we’ve learned; and sometimes, that means she experiences the injury or scare over and over again until she figures it out. Her emotional world is safe and she has a strong launchpad to return to if ever a risk is deemed too much, and I’m trying my best to encourage her self-regulation and the learning curve that accompanies that. It’s hard.
A friend once said to me, “Couch potatoes don’t get injuries,” and there’s also Lady Allen’s quote, “Better a broken bone than a broken spirit.” I try to remind myself of what my greater goals are when I allow my daughter to make her own decisions and take risks. I want her to be a motivated individual who has self-confidence and satisfaction; that necessitates giving her opportunities to develop and test out those things.
What are your thoughts on adventure playgrounds and allowing your child to experience risks?