Wednesday, February 5th, 2014
Keeping Children Safe……From Fun?
Having three children of my own, I obviously put child safety at the top of the list when it comes to sports, outdoor activity or any potentially dangerous situation where adults may have better judgement skills. So, I’m grateful that there are professionals such as lifeguards, crossing guards, monitors and care providers to help us watch over our little ones. I’mequally grateful for the readily available equipment such as helmets, guard -rails, seat belts and harnesses. The public is way more informed and involved in children’s well being compared to the, all but absent awareness, during the time of our own childhood. I remember hanging on the back of the drivers seat while my father drove, I was always standing up looking over his shoulder through the windshield. I also remember riding my BMX down rocky hillsides, pulling jumps and even close calls involving myself flying over the handle bars planting my face in the dirt. Come to think of it, there were many ‘close calls ‘ when we were kids. In fact, we probably invented the term.
As time passed and We the dare devil children of the 70’s and 80’s grew to become parents ourselves, leaps and bounds were taken to make our kids lives safer. It was quite the revolution, and yet the children of today have no idea how lucky they are. In our day, a trip to the hospital was like a trip to the dentist, undesirable but common. Even the fear of ‘getting stitches’ has all but disappeared from the concerns of young children.
However, after saying all this, recent observations have made me question whether our preoccupation with safety has gone a little too far and even become,
well…. slightly unhealthy. Once we had collectively conquered all the obvious challenges, who exactly did we pass the torch to? Government regulations from the top down, Federal to the municipal level, have made safety into law and justifiably so. From public to the private sector, strict norms are practiced and enforced. Yet what are the limits to creating a safe environment? I don’t mean what are the minimum requirements, what are the maximum requirements? When is it all just too much?
I have seen quite a few examples now where designated play areas for children are so safe that they have become down right boring. Over zealous safety nuts have ruined many of the public parks we grew up with, by excessively installing protective foam, barriers and oversized carriage bolts to bind together moving pieces. Gone are the immense wooden structures WE used to run up and down playing sand man, TV tag and capture the flag. Instead, pint sized pastel coloured plastic replicas stand clustered together on wood chip and mulch islands. The slides are so tight and low to the ground, the swings have rings to prevent kids from going to high, and the good old monkey bars now resemble shelves from a closet organizer. No more sand castles, no more jumping off the swings and definitely no more sand tag.
To my utter amazement I still see parents chasing their kids with their arms outstretched as if they were made of glass. What’s the worse that could happen? Johnny falls off the three-foot slide into the pile of red wood chips below? Have the ambulance ready! There’s something to be said about children learning their limits and the potential risks in their environment. A park is a great classroom for this occasion and also offers a child an opportunity to develop their motor skills and to build confidence with their own ability. Limiting their range and capacity will surely impede this judgement, pushing basic life lessons to the back burner while offering a false sense of security in environments that require vigilance and common sense.
Living in the country, I have been lucky enough to find some ‘ old fashion ‘ parks still in service. These hidden gems please my boys to no end and allow for hours of fun, expanding their talents and helping them to explore their physical abilities. Such rare finds include double slides with a jump in the middle, cargo net style ropes rising to the top of the structure and monkey bars, real monkey bars, bending this way and that across long structured spans. Even their 190lb Dad can join in the fun and chase them from one end to the other. These structures are still safe and allow spontaneous sport to blend with an active imagination. The potential dangers are quickly recognised and acknowledged and the free play ensues.
I find that this overprotective movement has even spread to events that are supposedly geared to children. On more than one occasion my boys have been reprimanded for simply being children. Not the bratty ‘not listening to authority kind’, but rather ‘the curious by nature kind’. Why do these corporate event planners seek out environments with such appeal to explore, run and play if they want children to stay in line, be quiet and listen? They seem more concerned about lawsuits than allowing fun to prevail. Instead they fill the grounds with people in neon vests who walk around enforcing the most trivial rules and who basically tell people off all day. When are kids allowed to just be kids?
Recently, I decided to take my boys to a nearby sledding hill about 10 minutes from home. We loaded up the van with an arsenal of crazy carpets, a ‘Zipfy’ and a downhill toboggan, ready to tear up the hill. It was the perfect winter day, mild temperature, fresh snow on the ground and grey clouds chasing each other across the sky. When we pulled into the parking lot of the hill in question, we were surprised to see a cluster of people standing at the top of the hill. It looked as though they were standing in line …but that couldn’t be, when do people stand in line to go sledding? Yet, upon further inspection, that’s exactly what was happening. The city had installed a series of metal barricades that ran the full length of the top of the toboggan hill corralling people to one single entrance. To my dismay, there stood a woman in a neon vest, controlling the flow of people. I walked over to get a proper look at the situation. I watched in disbelief as children stood in line and waited for the woman to give them the signal to go.
One at a time each child would sit down on their sled, slide down the hill alone until they reached the bottom and then simply stand up and walk to the designated walk up. Only once the child had started their ascent would the neon vested safety monitor allow the next child to go down the hill. It was the strangest thing I had ever seen on a toboggan run, people all standing their quietly waiting their turn, like an audience watching each persons decent. There was no childish laughter, high fives, duelling racers, group sled barges, distance contests or daredevil antics, in fact there was no fun at all! The whole experience had been completely controlled to the point that it drained every last ounce of excitement from the activity. It made sledding boring. Now, I understand the need for safety and perhaps a hill monitor could in fact reduce accidents for certain situations, but to limit free play to the point of in being undesirable is not a victory in my mind, but rather a damn shame for families looking to spend time and have fun with their kids. In the end, my boys never even got out of the car. Instead we drove to another location across the city. It was a much smaller hill, but we had a blast regardless. We raced, we chased, We held onto one another and laughed enjoying the afternoon of unrestricted play. That’s the way it should be.
Parents are quite able when it comes to keeping their children safe and don’t always need outside sources to take that rightful judgment out of their hands. When something is done excessively, it spoils what comes naturally. So, let’s tone it down a bit before we loose all our simple pleasures to the exaggerated preoccupation with safety.