I am aware that, if this campaign gets any traction, I’m bound to be told by people who don’t currently have small children or use public playgrounds that I’m a classic example of politically correct modern parent who wants to wrap their children in cotton wool, so today I want to challenge the idea that fencing playgrounds restricts opportunities for younger children to encounter risk while playing.
As I said in my first post about Kiwi Play Safe:
…the vast majority of playgrounds that I’ve visited with my three year old twins are very well designed, with safe and exciting play equipment that encourages children to climb, balance, test themselves physically, and have fun. In other words, this project has nothing to do with the quality of the New Zealand’s playgrounds themselves: they are fantastic.
I think that our playgrounds are great. And I also think that they offer appropriate levels of risk for our children. This point is key: I want my children to experience risk from the play equipment, not from the environment in which the playground is located. I’ve decided to illustrate this post with various examples of my children engaging in what would be typically described as risky play, to reassure any doubters that no, I’m not one of ‘those’ parents who shudder at the thought of their kids enjoying themselves and shredding parental nerves in the process.
From the age of two my kids were periodically making my blood run cold as they flew down flying foxes:
And although I tried to convince them that the high bars at our local playground were primarily designed for bigger kids, by two and a half they’d seen a child their age scamper across them, and they’ve happily tackled them ever since:
And what goes up, must come down – my husband is there purely as a precautionary measure, as my daughter is totally capable of handling this descent unaided:
Watching the two of them test themselves on play equipment over the past 18 months, I’ve learned a lot about their temperaments. My daughter has always been ahead of her twin brother physically: crawling and walking first, and being the first one to tackle any new physical challenge. However, I’ve realised that she makes very calculated risks, which seems to be primarily because she possesses a strong intuitive fear of failure (and that is obviously something that we’ll need to help her to manage in the coming years, but that’s a whole different blog post…) – in other words, she will test herself physically, but only when she is confident that she can conquer something. She has only had one fall from play equipment, and given how much she climbs things, that’s quite amazing. She was also far less likely to bump herself while learning to walk.
By contrast, her brother is bigger and seems to be slightly less in control of his limbs at times, and is also more cautious – so, he’ll push himself to try something new, possibly because his sister is doing it with what seems like little effort, but he’ll sometimes misjudge things and take a tumble. So we’re always close at hand when he attempts a new physical challenge. We try to encourage him to attempt new challenges, but only as far as he feels comfortable. I don’t see any merit in forcing a child to push themselves too far beyond the point where they feel confident. On the rare occasion when he does manage to figure out how to climb something before his sister he takes great delight in showing her how best to do it – like when he conquering the climbing wall at our local school playground before her, a few months ago:
I think this all illustrates how risk in play is actually really important – it teaches children to understand their limits, and know when to push themselves and when to learn from others (or maybe just wait a bit and try again another day).
And now that they’re three and a half, they’ve become more daring, and are willing to climb even higher:
…which is occasionally problematic for me if they go too high on one of these rope climbing frames, and need me to clamber up there and rescue them: I’m 41, and not as limber as I once was!
So, for the avoidance of doubt, here is the official Kiwi Play Safe position:
Risk is an essential part of play for younger children, and good playgrounds should (and do) provide it. However, the element of risk should come from within the playground – not from the area surrounding it.
In my next post I’ll talk more about the hazards from which our children need protection at playgrounds: water; traffic; and dogs.
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