I remember the playgrounds of my childhood; wooden totem poles, giant cement structures for climbing and not a cushioned ground in sight. I also remember the freedom of being able to run around the neighborhood getting into any nook my little heart desired. My child is only three, but already I can tell he lacks the abandon and fearlessness that I had as a child. And it's totally my fault.
The first time I realized my child could bleed, he was a year-and-a-half old. He was doing a little happy dance after I put him in his pajamas. He twirled a little too fast, slipped and slammed his face right into the corner of a nesting table. The blood came fast as did the swelling. My husband has a knack for panicking, so he convinced me he needed stitches. We went to the ER.
Apparently, kids' little chubby faces swell and bruise easily and the spot right next to the eye is notorious for heavy bleeding. These were all things we did not know. My child didn't need stitches - he barely needed a band-aid. The bleeding stopped and the swelling eventually went down. He had a shiner for a few days, but besides that the only other thing we were left with was a hefty bill from the ER. His insurance had somehow lapsed and he wasn't covered.
I don't know if it was the realization that my child could easily get hurt or the paranoia that came when I realized he would be without insurance for a little bit longer while the glitch was settled - but something changed in me after that. All of a sudden, I was really jumpy and nervous while watching him play. Directives like "be careful" and "slowly!" started coming out of my mouth with greater frequency. I hovered closely around him at the park where he played.
I think about all of this today because of an article in The Atlantic about something writer Hanna Rosin refers to as "the overprotected kid." Mine is one of them - and I hate it.
The article speaks to the way in which the culture of the playground has completely changed by contrasting it with a playground called "The Land" in North Wales:
The Land is a playground that takes up nearly an acre at the far end of a quiet housing development in North Wales. It’s only two years old but has no marks of newness and could just as well have been here for decades. The ground is muddy in spots and, at one end, slopes down steeply to a creek where a big, faded plastic boat that most people would have thrown away is wedged into the bank. The center of the playground is dominated by a high pile of tires that is growing ever smaller as a redheaded girl and her friend roll them down the hill and into the creek.
The Land is an "adventure playground." These playgrounds began sprouting up in the 1940's as a result of the efforts of children's advocate and architect Lady Marjory Allen of Hurtwood. Allen "wanted to encourage a 'free and permissive atmosphere' with as little adult supervision as possible. The idea was that kids should face what to them seem like 'really dangerous risks' and then conquer them alone." Allen believed this built self-confidence and courage.
The article juxtaposes the idea of this type of playground with playgrounds we see all over the U.S., filled with litigious parents and helicopter parenting. It's true that it is really hard to be impressed by a playground you visit these days. They are all the same blend of bright colors, not-too-high slides and cushioned grounds. Where is the danger?
I notice my child at the playground, cautiously climbing up cushioned stairs and stopping to sit carefully before he goes down the slide. If I compare the time I spent at the park with him this morning with the images of the kids in the article playing with fire pits and climbing up stacks of what looks to be abandoned furniture - I feel a little sorry for my child.
It’s hard to absorb how much childhood norms have shifted in just one generation. Actions that would have been considered paranoid in the ’70s—walking third-graders to school, forbidding your kid to play ball in the street, going down the slide with your child in your lap—are now routine. In fact, they are the markers of good, responsible parenting.
Maybe it isn't my fault. Maybe none of this is a result of a small cut and a lack of insurance - maybe it's the result of a paranoid society and kids that can never be left alone. I have rolled my eyes at Lenore Skenazy more than once, but the further down the cautious-parenting rabbit hole I go, the more I think she's on to something. I look at the images in the Atlantic article and know that my childhood self would have loved a playground like this. I remember my childhood self conquering dangerous things around the neighborhood with my friends - and I can only believe that this spirit is what formed me into the young adult who backpacked through Greece alone for months at a time and the older adult who has never been crippled by a need for security.
Am I passing on the same qualities to my child? I guess it's ridiculous to blame this all on our modern playground culture - but I have to start this introspective process somewhere.
(photo: Rob Hainer/ Shutterstock)