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Where Are The Free-Range Kids?

When my children were young we lived in a small country town. We travelled regularly to visit family and friends and for our holidays. Our trips normally took us through a larger town where it was often convenient to stop to have something to eat and allow the children to play awhile after being cooped up in the car. They preferred to play in a little park, the main attraction of which was a rocket ship with an internal ladder and a few platforms and a pole you could slide down.

Some years later passing through the town again I noticed the rocket had gone. Talking to the locals I was informed that the local council had removed it on the advice it was unsafe and could lead to litigation if children were injured.

I have no wish to see children injured but I wonder what the cost is of restricting their play. I note with some alarm that some schools ban “running-around” games like “tiggy” and “red rover” all at a time when there are increasing concerns about obesity and the lack of physical fitness of our children.

I was about six years old and on one dewy morning tried to master the “monkey bars” at my primary school only to slip off. The resultant fall caused me to fracture my right arm. In today’s context, on reflection there were two interesting outcomes. Firstly, my parents had not the slightest inclination to sue the school. Secondly, I had no urge to prevent my children playing on such apparatus or banning them from schools.

Yet over the last couple of decades we have seen the removal of monkey bars, merry-go-rounds, space rockets and such-like from our playgrounds.

An article in The Weekend Australian states:

“Last month the Queensland Department of Education upgraded the risk category of swimming lessons from medium to high, despite noting there has never been a single drowning in the history of the school swimming lessons program. Preliminary recommendations had proposed such a high level of qualification for supervisors that it put the program at risk, which would have exposed countless children to the real risk of growing up on an island unable to swim.”

There is a very perverse logic exposed here. Suppose I had invented a vaccination that say prevented breast cancer. But I know from clinical trials that it might be fatal to one in every two hundred thousand women. If I proposed that we vaccinated every female over the age of 45 would women be prepared to take this chance? I suspect most would. So if a child has a minimal chance of drowning learning to swim but a far more likely possibility if they don’t, why should we be constraining our swimming lessons? Are there no risks worth taking?

What we forget sometimes is that play is a natural part of the education process for children. Running around might not teach them maths but it teaches coordination and large motor skills. But more importantly it helps them learn lessons to cope with a world that is sometimes inimical to them. It builds resilience.

Activities that previous generations of children enjoyed without a second thought – like walking to school on their own – are now seen as too risky and adults who permit them are seen as irresponsible. Some parents are afraid to let their children play unsupervised.

Through encountering risks, children learn how to overcome challenging situations, nurturing their character and fostering a sense of adventure, entrepreneurialism and self-reliance.

Now I am not advocating that children just be allowed to do anything they want or they should go entirely unsupervised. And of course we have seen the disaster that occurs in those dysfunctional households where children are given no supervision at all and are allowed at an early age to wander unchecked at all hours of the day and night. As the range of our children’s activities expands, parental guidance and supervision should be given while they build their competence and understanding of the attendant risks. But we should be seeking to gradually and appropriately to increase their autonomy

On their web site Kidsafe report:
“More children die of injury than die of cancer, asthma and infectious diseases combined.”

“Each year about 250 Australian children (aged 0-14 years) are killed and 58,000 hospitalised by unintentional injuries – the kind often referred to as accidents. Many of these are easily prevented by simple means.”

The problem is that the ‘simple means’ normally entails either restriction (eg no rocket ships, monkey bars etc) or considerable cost (barriers, padding, safety surfacing, child car seats and so on).

{Research by Steven Levitt (economist and author of “Freakonomics”) suggests that child car seats and booster seats offer no more protection than seatbelts.}

Cassandra Wilkinson, writing in the Australian, countered the Kidsafe statement thus:
“In reality serious injuries from play are pretty rare. A 2009 report by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare found the most common causes of child deaths were traffic accidents, drowning and assault. The most common causes of injuries were falls, road accidents, poisoning, burns and scalds, and assault. And while the number of falls is high the severity is usually not. According to the Australian Bureau of statistics 93% of falls were of 1metre or less, such as falling off chairs or out of bed.”

As I have previously explored in my blogs, here we have another example of our emotions getting in the way of the statistics to render a disproportionate response.

Tim Gill, British childhood play expert and author of the book “No Fear: Growing Up in a Risk Averse Society” writes:

“Although there is a widely held view that children grow up faster today, in fact their lives are far more controlled than they were thirty years ago.”

“In this shrinking domain of childhood, our tendency to always view children as fragile means we are not encouraging them to develop their natural resilience – learning to manage risk in an age-appropriate way.”

“This is not an unconditional plea for the deregulation of childhood: children want adults to help them stay safe, and of course we must accept that responsibility.”

“But rather than having a nanny state, where risk aversion dominates the landscape, we should be aspiring to a child-friendly society, where communities look out for each other and for children”

Penny Nicholls, from the Children’s Society in the UK said, “Over-protecting children carries different risks to under-protecting them, but it can still cause long-term damage to their well-being. If we continue to try and create a risk-free life for our children, it will be childhood itself that’s at risk.

Gill argues that trying to eliminate risks from playgrounds have made them sterile and unattractive options for many children. He points out that in the last few years in the UK some 300 million pounds has been spent on high-tech safety surfacing in playgrounds. He argues that because 1 child dies every 3-4 years in a playground this is a disproportionate response. In the same time, over 2,500 children died in traffic accidents. He argues, logically, that if that investment had been made into traffic calming perhaps the lives of hundreds of children might have been saved.

In doing a little research for this essay I came across a little bit of research that was quite depressing. The research involved interviewing children about their desires and their fears.

The researcher reported, “‘Risky’ themes emerged, such as being afraid of strangers, kidnapping, road traffic and dark places. Children showed particular anxiety about strangers and kidnapping, even when playing in and around their home. These two risks were amplified above other perceptions of risk, even though they are the least likely to happen.”

The children in the study wanted to play outdoors but were too afraid to do so.

Because of these fears, our children are thwarting their desires to play in the park, play cricket in the street, explore the local bushland, fish in the nearby creek, walk to school, run an errand for mum, and largely for the wrong reasons.

No matter how hard we try, and no matter how much we spend, we can’t eliminate the risks to our children. And I suppose I would say neither would I want to. Our children grow up and guess what? They are exposed to risks as adults and by then they normally don’t have parents who can guide them. So when are they going to learn about life if we shelter them from every minor possibility of harm?

Our animal liberation activists have been berating us because we continue to pen chickens in restricted enclosures. If we continue to follow the dictates of the nanny state our children will fare no better.

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  1. 10 Comment(s)

  2.   By Barbara Jones on Nov 5, 2011 | Reply

    Ted – you’ve taken the words right out of my mouth. We must let the little ones play – and be children. It is the only chance they will get at it, as they all grow up much too soon.

    I’m concerned at the degree of fear and achievement-based anxiety today’s young mothers are passing on (social contagion) to these littlies, and what that is potentially going to mean for them and our society in the future.

    Watching the little people (surrogate grandchildren) in my life just be free to explore and run is a joy for them and their parents and me.

    A recent broken collar-bone as a consequence of a Superman flight from a tall lounge-chair gone wrong, has stopped Mr 4 year old not one bit. Thankfully, his father sees this injury as possibly just the first of a few as he makes his way to manhood.

    Keep the good themes coming Ted.

    BARBARA

  3.   By Geoff on Nov 6, 2011 | Reply

    Thank-you for writing about this Ted. I (and my children) enjoyed Lenore Skenazy (dubbed ‘America’s Worst Mom’) talking on Big Ideas a few years ago. Especially in talking about abandoning her 11 year old (I think it was) in a shopping centre in NY to find his own way home on the subway. A story well told here: http://www.abc.net.au/tv/bigideas/stories/2010/10/19/3041019.htm

    …Geoff

  4.   By Elyssebeth Leigh on Nov 6, 2011 | Reply

    There is a ‘water play’ area in my local park. The first time i took my grandchildren there i was shocked by how ‘dangerous’ it appeared to be. Granite boulders forming water passages and small dams, cobblestones where random water jets shoot into the air, inviting kids to ‘guess where next’ and ‘run over here’, sharp edges and slippery spots everywhere.
    Still I’d promised them they could play – so off they went.
    In that and many subsequent visits the most serious accident has been a scraped knee [fixed’ dare i say it by a bit of spit and a cuddle – terminated when he saw how much fun his brother was having].
    So my initial reaction of concern has shifted dramatically to concern that other parents/responsible adults will avoid the apparent ‘danger’ and not allow their children the sheer joy of taking a small risk while learning how use their sense of proprioception [meaning “one’s own” and perception – the sense of the relative position of neighbouring parts of the body and strength of effort being employed in movement].
    Perhaps the saddest thing is that councils and lawyers are metaphorically closing down their own sense of exteroception [by which we perceive the outside world] through fear of ‘litigation’ which fear may exist only in their own minds – and our children are the poorer for it.
    El

  5.   By Greg Brown on Nov 6, 2011 | Reply

    All is not lost Ted..

    You can play cricket or football these days in the comfort and of course safety of your lounge room with a coke in one hand and a bag of chips in the other. Better still you can even play with the neighbours kids in the on-line virtual play ground or with kids all over the world. What an amazing and excitingly safe world we live in. Very sad really. Fearing for our lives and the lives of our children has taken away much of life itself and our fear is quickly picked up by our children. I anticipate the next generation will not even know what they are missing.

    The world is not only legislating to take away quality play from children but it is also shaming many of us into compliant behaviour. When a child is taken to a hospital with a broken arm the carer is often made to feel like it is there fault. Accidents don’t exist anymore. They are all preventable and all should be avoided and if you are not doing your part you are negligent.

  6.   By Father Robin on Nov 6, 2011 | Reply

    Why doesn’t the ocean require a safety fence?

    Pools do.

    Surfing is a heath hazard.

    Gimme a good break.

  7.   By Paul McArdle on Nov 7, 2011 | Reply

    Ted,

    In TEDx, Gever Tulley takes a different approach to the same issue:
    http://www.ted.com/talks/gever_tulley_on_5_dangerous_things_for_kids.html

    More seriously, I think Dan Gilbert is onto something that will help to explain why western culture has become more “safety conscious”, or more “obsessively paranoid” (depending on one’s perspective):
    http://www.ted.com/talks/dan_gilbert_researches_happiness.html

    Thankfully we have 2 robust kids to keep us on our toes!

    Paul

  8.   By tedscott on Nov 7, 2011 | Reply

    Thank you all for your comments. It seems we have shared feelings on this topic.

    Thank you Barabara and El for providing some great anecdotes relating to the subject.

    I support your comments too Greg. It is largely the guilt that devoted parents feel when an accident occurs that drives us to be so risk averse and the authorities use this to manipulate us.

    Thanks for the references Paul. I’ll certainly check them out.

    And Father Robin, your negligence is attested to by the fact that you never even fenced Callide Dam – let alone the ocean!

  9.   By Father Robin on Nov 7, 2011 | Reply

    As much as I pleaded, ‘The Budget’ didn’t allow it.

    However the government may support razor-ribbon along all Gold Coast beaches to protect overseas visitors from the perils of the ocean.

    I suspect some Free-Range Kids have grown up.

  10.   By Sheree Press on Nov 9, 2011 | Reply

    Don’t get me started Ted. I’m sure we’d have many friends in the wider community as well. I remember playing mud pies as a child and having a great time. There was no doubt germs that found their way into my mouth aside from the great mess I was in, but no doubt my immune system learned to cope with this and was the better for it. I scraped my knees every other day at school playing chasey, still have the scars, but also have the memories.

  11.   By tedscott on Nov 10, 2011 | Reply

    Thanks Sheree – a good response.

    Sorry Geoff I overlooked your message. Sounds as if “the world’s worst mother” might have some useful tips!

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