The overprotected child

The author’s 5-year-old son, Gideon, playing at the Land playground in North Wales. (Hanna Rosin)

Overprotective, safety-obsessed parents have “stripped childhood of independence, risk taking, and discovery—without making it safer,” writes Hanna Rosin in The Atlantic.

The “adventure playground,” which gives kids a chance to explore and challenge themselves, is growing in popularity in Europe, she writes. She visited The Land, a Welsh playground.

“Playworkers” keep an eye on children, but try not to intervene. Parents usually don’t come.

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. . . . 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.

. . . there are . . .  no shiny metal slide topped by a red steering wheel or a tic-tac-toe board; no yellow seesaw with a central ballast to make sure no one falls off; no rubber bucket swing for babies. There is, however, a frayed rope swing that carries you over the creek and deposits you on the other side, if you can make it that far (otherwise it deposits you in the creek). . . . the kids seem excited by a walker that was donated by one of the elderly neighbors and is repurposed, at different moments, as a scooter, a jail cell, and a gymnastics bar.

A generation ago, mothers were more likely to be at home, but less likely to arrange playdates or drive the kids to swim lessons, Rosin writes. Children had free, unsupervised time. They figured out what to do with it.

On weekdays after school (her mother) just expected me to show up for dinner; on weekends I barely saw her at all. I, on the other hand, might easily spend every waking Saturday hour with one if not all three of my children, taking one to a soccer game, the second to a theater program, the third to a friend’s house, or just hanging out with them at home. When my daughter was about 10, my husband suddenly realized that in her whole life, she had probably not spent more than 10 minutes unsupervised by an adult. Not 10 minutes in 10 years.

It’s not just a U.S. phenomenon. In 1971, 80 percent of British third-graders walked to school alone, a study found. “By 1990, that measure had dropped to 9 percent, and now it’s even lower.” (When I started kindergarten in 1957, two generations ago, my mother let me walk with the other kids — no parents — from the first day.)

Children need to explore, argues Ellen Sandseter, a professor of early-childhood education in Norway.  “When they are left alone and can take full responsibility for their actions, and the consequences of their decisions, it’s a thrilling experience.”

Paradoxically, Sandseter writes, “our fear of children being harmed,” mostly in minor ways, “may result in more fearful children .”  Children who injured themselves falling from heights when they were between 5 and 9 years old are less likely to be afraid of heights at age 18, a study found.

Erin Davis has made a documentary about The Land.

About Joanne


  1. Only ten minutes? Don’t they have a back yard? Or does that count as “supervised” time because I can hear them scream is someone gets dirt thrown in their eyes?

  2. A couple of years ago, I read an article on this general topic that said that an Arlington County, VA (DC suburb) law requires direct supervision, by someone at least 16 years old, of children under 8 in a fenced yard. Cabined, cribbed and confined.

  3. greeneyeshade says:

    Maybe a deeper reading would change my mind, but so far this culture of risk-aversion reminds me of the first paragraph of Saki’s story “The Mouse:”
    “Theodoric Voler had been brought up, from infancy to the confines of middle age, by a fond mother whose chief solicitude had been to keep him screened from what she called the coarser realities of life. When she died she left Theodoric alone in a world that was as real as ever, and a good deal coarser than he considered it had any need to be.”

  4. Hee hee! as kids (maybe 8+) we were actually sent out to burn leaves in the Fall and trash at other times of the year. Only rule: have a bucket of water just in case. This was after watching older people do this a number of times, natch.

  5. Soapbox0916 says:

    A really good website about this is called Free-Range Kids.

  6. I didn’t know at the time but evidently we were all raised as “free range” kids.

    All Mom asked us to do was be back home when the street lights came on.

    The rest of the day was exploring, digging holes in the backyard, riding bikes in cutoffs barefoot .

    We played at idle construction sites down the street. Played tag on top of the tilt up walls. Threw dirt clods at each other.

    Hunted lizards in the creeks. Slid down the dam face on cardboard into the water at the reservoir.

    (Uh…don’t let my grandkids read this)