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.