The downsides to helmets, safety precautions and cautious parenting

Ok, we are biased. We love getting outside and playing with the kids.  One big reason is that you get to act like a kid again.  Everyone would think that I’m crazy if I ran around at the McDonald’s play land on my own, but with the kids, it’s fair game.

So this may be a rehashed topic for some, but when I read about playgrounds becoming “too safe”, it rang true and the science behind what we give up by being over precautious is revealing about us as parents.

“There is no clear evidence that playground safety measures have lowered the average risk on playgrounds,” said David Ball, a professor of risk management at Middlesex University in London. He noted that the risk of some injuries, like long fractures of the arm, actually increased after the introduction of softer surfaces on playgrounds in Britain and Australia.

“This sounds counterintuitive, but it shouldn’t, because it is a common phenomenon,” Dr. Ball said. “If children and parents believe they are in an environment which is safer than it actually is, they will take more risks. An argument against softer surfacing is that children think it is safe, but because they don’t understand its properties, they overrate its performance.”

One of my friends summed it up well with a sarcastic flare, “How did the human race survive thousands of years without constantly wearing a helmet?”.

Don’t get us wrong, we do use helmets and tie our kids into harnesses, strap them into the car seat and make them look both ways before crossing the street.  We care about them and their safety.  But there are lessons to be learned in life that only come through experiencing life and we can’t protect them from everything, so we might as well help them to learn how to deal with and face as many things as we can with them during the short few years that we have with them. We like to expose them to the world in controlled environments and let them learn their own limits, encouraging their growth and

Ellen Sandseter, a professor of psychology at Queen Maud University in Norway, identifies six categories of risky play:

  • exploring heights
  • experiencing high speeds
  • handling dangerous tools
  • being near dangerous elements (like water or fire)
  • rough-and-tumble play (like wrestling)
  • wandering alone away from adult supervision.

Where else but the great outdoors will a child get exposed to these things?  Without exposure to these types of risks, we may actually be hurting our child’s development and unconsciously create phobias that can easily be overcome.

While some psychologists — and many parents — have worried that a child who suffered a bad fall would develop a fear of heights, studies have shown the opposite pattern: A child who’s hurt in a fall before the age of 9 is less likely as a teenager to have a fear of heights.

Dr. Sandseter also makes the point that “Paradoxically, we posit that our fear of children being harmed by mostly harmless injuries [i.e. a cut or a bruise] may result in more fearful children and increased levels of psychopathology.”

So we do recommend bringing the kids, because as noted below is a study done by doctors at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center observing and interviewing daycare providers, your kids won’t get much exposure to this type of risky play at daycare. Here are a few highlights from the study:

Three-quarters of U.S. kids attend childcare at ages 3 to 5, where studies have shown that nearly all their time is spent sedentary.

Several providers mentioned pressure from parents to keep their children from getting injured, even being asked to keep a child from participating in any vigorous activity.

State inspections of playground equipment and increasingly strict licensing codes made the providers feel confident about safety, though perhaps too much so for the children’s tastes.

To keep it challenging, teachers noted that children would start to use equipment in (unsafe) ways for which it was not intended.

The bottom line: Society is driven by lawsuits, medical costs, safety and paranoia which keeps us from exposing our children to learning and growing aspects of the real world.  It is too sanitized and too safe.  So kids who grow up in these environments can develop fears instead of comforts with the six risky play behaviors.  Conversly, they may see the world as “safe” with all of the precautions we take, and when faced with a real challenge, won’t know how to react.

The outside world is the best playground. get outside, challenge yourselves and discover the world and make stronger, confident, prepared children in the process.

To see more about these trends and for additional reading you can find a New York Time’s article here and MedPage Today article here.

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