Children and parents play and safety concerns might now be creating bullying and injuries


Can playgrounds be too safe?

Michael Enright - March 28, 2014 | Categories: Michael's Essays

AP Photo

AP Photo


My eldest son got a haircut last week, a close cut which revealed a two-inch scar at the back of his scalp. When people ask him how he got it, he says: "It's an exit wound." The truth is not so romantic. I was feeding him when the high chair tipped back and he clanged his head on a radiator. My middle son was on a first name basis with some of the nurses at the emergency room in the local hospital. An eye injury, a greenstick fracture of his arm, scars on his legs from trying to fly off the garage roof and out of tall trees. Our visits were so regular that I was terrified of being put on the abusive parents' registry.
My youngest son, on the other hand, has neither scar nor scratch on him. The worst trauma happened a few years ago when he came off his skateboard on a hill, bloodied his knees and road-burned his shins. It was very painful and he cried; but when he went to school the next day, he displayed his abraded knee like a war wound. My youngest son grew up in the era of the safe playground and the safe schoolyard. A different time from that of his brothers.
This is an era that force-feeds parents on the foolish idea that children have to be protected from all risk, all dangers, at all costs. I got to thinking about these things recently because of  two events; a Toronto principal cancelled recess in an elementary school because it was cold outside -- and some great reporting in The National Post by Sarah Boesveld, about a grade school in Auckland, New Zealand. Bruce McLachlan, the principal of Swanson School, was concerned that his 500 students were being restricted by too many playground safety rules. His kids weren't allowed to ride their scooters in the playground or climb trees or rough-house because they might get hurt. So Principal McLachlan threw out the rule book. He did away with all so-called safety measures; he let the kids do pretty much what they wanted. What he discovered was startling. In the first place there were no major injuries. In fact injuries declined. There was a decrease in bullying and vandalism. Children were so busy and physically active at recess that they returned to the classroom motivated, not agitated, as Ms. Boesveld reports. Contrast that with the Canadian model. School trustees, administrators and principals in this country are so terrified of angry parents and insurance companies that we restrict, in fact impede, the normal physical exertions of boys and girls. We have all but taken the play out of the playground. I have seen very young toddlers on tiny tricycles wearing bike helmets, while the parent hovers nearby. We drive our kids to school and pick them up instead of making them walk. We confine them to strollers far beyond the years for which they are needed.
We are constantly reinforcing in their exploding minds that danger is everywhere and they must protect themselves no matter what. The idea of risk lies more in the minds of parents than in the real world.
Somehow most of us managed to survive the dangers of childhood, the hours firing our Daisy Red Ryder BB guns or running with scissors, without serious result. Children are endlessly curious. They are daring in their own testing way. They need risk; it feeds their growth and their imaginations.  Yes, they will fall and they will hurt themselves. And they will cry to have their wounds bound up. But that is better than a vacuum-sealed, airless and artificial protective carapace that teaches them to fear.