94 Comments

I think one underappreciated motivation for restricting risky play is the very real financial or legal consequences.

My parents are boomers, and if they fell off a tree branch and broke their arm, their parents would take them to a family doctor who might even set the bone and put the arm in a plaster cast on the spot for a reasonable sum. If my kids break an arm, it's automatically a minimum $6,000 emergency room visit with the potential for up to $12,000 out of pocket maximum.

During the pandemic, many states have started prosecuting parents for failing to keep kids on a short leash, including the state in which I live. I feel certain that if I let my kids wander the community spaces in our neighborhood unsupervised, more than one of my neighbors would contact law enforcement to report an unattended child.

I'm all in on this analysis, but many of the factors affecting this huge problem are way beyond the ability of any individual parent to solve.

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Absolutely. I appreciated the attention in this article to factors such as the decrease in outdoor spaces for play or access to the play spaces that do exist, but this is also very important.

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Absolutely. I was at the beach with my 9 and 7 year old. Zero waves, the kids were sitting at the edge of the water building sandcastles. I was sitting 2 metres away reading a book (facing them). A stranger stopped to angrily rebuke me because I was not watching my children! Don't I know how quickly they can drown!

They weren't even swimming! Even if they were they are completely competent swimmers. But the fear of being scolded by strangers is real.

On the other hand I remember when my very bold and active toddler got away from me at the same beach years earlier and a kind stranger grabbed him and saved him from plunging himself straight into the water with a smile and a laugh about kids. No judgement, just a nice feeling of community support in raising these unpredictable humans.

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Could having fewer children be one factor? Apart from fewer opportunities to play with siblings, it's a cliché that we are blasé about our second child doing things that we'd have freaked out over with our first. About third and fourth children, I can't speak.

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I remember a funny story - the first child’s pacifier (dummy we call them in Australia) is put into a special steriliser for hygiene, the second child’s pacifier is run under the hot water tap, the third child’s pacifer - mum sucks it clean and pops it back in the child’s mouth, the fourth child has to wrestle the pacifier out of the dogs mouth themself.

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I've clearly got some deeply-embedded cultural stereotypes in there because I mentally added 'the fifth child has to get it out of a crocodile.' Sorry.

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HaHa, funny you should say that as my three grandchildren just moved to Darwin in the Northern Territory of Australia where people are often eaten by crocodiles (well, not that often….) also sharks, killer box jellyfish, and venomous snakes are common! I’m heading up soon to help keep an eye on them!

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or NOT, if I allow the free play. At least my daughter has three kids~!

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MARIANA BRUSSONI's website is

outsideplay.org

and

https://spph.ubc.ca/faculty/mariana-brussoni/

so I googled for keywords re: science of anxiety:

site:outsideplay.org exposure OR desensitization OR desensitisation

and got ZERO hits...but I found:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5842626/

which uses a metric:"Tolerance of Risk in Play Scale"

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22846064/

...all this was to "fight off my disgust" at her '...We desperately want to keep our children safe...'...?

MAGA:"Make American Great Again"... when were we great? What's the metric?

Woke:"Stay Safe"....this is how Woodruff closed each of her weekday PBS Newshours... if I had a pushbutton to sue PBS for fraud I'd of "pushed it like a jack hammer"😁😁😁😁😁😁(my fantasy was that she would settle out of court by retracting it publicly and replace it with: AVOIDANCE FEEDS ANXIETY😁😁😁😁or Eleanor Roosevelt's:"Do One thing every day that scares you.")

First Do No Harm: Stop the Lying...

..."Don't Sweat It" is a lie, exercise and exposure are mandatory and both cause sweat.😁😁😁😁

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YES - No one can be a helicopter parent for multiple kids, unless they drive themselves crazy putting in an unnecessary amount of effort.

Heck, we have 3 kids four and under........ and it's kind of a wild experience and I physically cannot control their outdoor play like a maniac. They are usually fine. I don't know what their free play would look like were they to be spread out farther in age. Instant playmates, these ones. And the third, bless him, he just tries to keep up and has learned to scavenge for food when there's a chance. haha

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Indeed, logistically speaking, it is practically impossible to be a helicopter parent to more than one child at a time, or more than maximum two kids spaced many, many years apart. That's not to say that having fewer kids necessarily makes helicoptering happen, only that it makes it possible now. The essence of wisdom is, basically, just because one CAN, doesn't mean one SHOULD.

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Feb 28·edited Feb 28

I think it probably is, but also that there's some amount of the chicken and egg problem. For example, speaking personally, the intensive parenting our society currently expects is definitely a factor that caused me to have fewer children. It's simply exhausting to meet such lofty expectations for multiple.

And though I think some of the problem is definitely parents' decisions, a lot of the problem is also environmental incentives*, which tend to favor the intensive choices that parents are making. Because while succumbing to intensive parenting is definitely exhausting, so too is perpetually swimming upstream. It's a bit "damned if you do, damned if you don't" for parents at the moment.

-----------------

* e.g. fewer risky playgrounds, the schools' expectations, other parents' expectations, random strangers' expectations, fewer stay-at-home parents, neighborhoods in which neighbors are more alienated from each other, fewer other kids out playing, etc.

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My mom had 10 siblings; I had one. I grew up surrounded by cousins--sometimes, an aunt with her kid, or an uncle with his kid, or just a cousin, parentless, would live in our house. This happened many times, and one of them simply stayed on--my parents added a room to the house for him. I migrated across the ocean and my child has only her brother, who's 6 years older, and no cousins. None. I sometimes feel very sorry for her as she has to rely on friends, most of whom are her same age, more or less, for company... we live in Spain, so there's tons of unsupervised time for her as a teen, but still... Extended family was my nation. I feel like I have made my child an apatrida.

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Possibly, but of course there is no law of nature that says that must be so. That said, helicoptering and safetyism is logistically difficult if not impossible with multiple kids at a time, no matter how strict one is or tries to be.

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Great piece with a crucially important message! Growing up in Switzerland, I experienced schooling that emphasized risky play, freedom to explore, and ample time to do so. Kindergarten children wear orange reflective stripes as they make their own way to school (and in many small towns parents are actively discouraged from driving them). Outdoor building spaces where children can build forts with simple tools are scattered throughout the town. Safety should be exercised online, but kids need real life risks to thrive. My husband and I wrote a related piece "The Hollow Boys, and Girls: Restoring Risk, Efficacy, and the Small Triumphs of Life" https://pilgrimsinthemachine.substack.com/p/the-hollow-boys-and-girls-restoring. Thanks again!

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Ruth, that sounds like a dream.

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Looking back, it definitely was a splendid childhood experience and I try to offer my kids these freedoms as much as possible as well. We visit my family in Switzerland every summer, and my children have loved spending time there, clamouring over crazy playgrounds, perilous hiking trails, and swimming down the Rhine. They often comment that these sorts of activities would either be outlawed in Canada, or else come with a list of warnings and waivers :)

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Loved this article and fully support the concept. But I don't think this passage supports the argument: "Injury-related deaths are at an all-time low in most Western nations. In the US, deaths from unintentional injuries fell by 73% for boys and 85% for girls between 1973 and 2010." It suggests that what we are doing is, in fact, making our kids safer.

I would personally argue that while injuries will be more frequent with risky unsupervised play, they will be less severe in general; children will be better able to cope; and mental health and overall happiness will improve. But it's illogical to deny that supervising all play makes children physically safer: it seems that it does.

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This was my comment as well, a very serious logical fallacy here. "The world got so much safer for children ever since we stopped letting them take so many risks! It's so safe now that you can go ahead and let them take those risks again."

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Exactly. These statistics rather support the argument for keeping the children away from risky play, not the other way around.

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I agree with the point you make about safety measures. They have actually worked, it appears. They have had side-effects that parents did not want: children have problems making friends and there it is an anxious generation. But the measures themselves have worked and that is why injury-related deaths have decreased.

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I am not surprised by these findings. As a young kid growing up in the 80’s I remember climbing trees (and falling!). I remember when my daughter was 10 months old and started walking. As she walked down the street, a little wobbly, a concerned parent asked me, “aren’t you afraid she’s going to fall?” She was shocked when I replied calmly, “there is no doubt that she will fall. But do you suggest I prevent her from trying to walk?” Being a parent is not easy. And striking the right balance between some healthy protection, and letting go is a challenge. But the results I see with “helicopter parenting” are indeed very alarming.

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Whaaaat?? Concerned strangers would inform me my baby was climbing on the picnic tables at the park and my husband and I thought that was kind of nuts (“Well spotted, sir!” or “At least she’s good at it!” We didn’t know what to say.)

But taking flak for letting a child WALK is a whole new level.

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Lmao at “well spotted, sir!”

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As an educator I see risky plays greatest benefits in building both social relationships and social visdom to solve disagreements before they evolve in open conflicts. It’s all too easy for supervising adult to come and give ones own opinion which children did something wrong or which children should change ones actions, but it is way more important to let children sort out their quarrels.

The more I follow social media, the more confirmed I am, that one of younger generatios aggressive and extremely selfcentered demands rise from the fact that soneone else always sorted out their disargreements and gave them a guidance or ordered to change thee way they played before children had any possibility to learn methods to solve disagreements.

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Homeschool your kids, and they'll have a lot more free time to do this.

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This is so interesting. My son was very anxious and depressed (even though we lived in nature and he had unlimited access to risky activities) until he went to college where the outdoor program pushes the kids to camp, hike, ski, bike, canoe, etc plus a whole range of indoor and outdoor sports. It’s all intramural and every student is on a team. It’s his group of barely supervised friends having the time of their lives.

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I definitely think the fact that people have fewer children is also important - the worse thing I can think of as a mother is one of my kids dying, but as I have four at least the other four would keep me going in life. In China an earthquake and landslides killed hundreds of children at a school years back - I remember thinking how totally tragic if that was your only child killed, and now you were too old to have any more. Plus with more kids as mentioned below the parents dont have time to supervise the older ones to the same extent.

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I thought I was overprotected as a kid in the early 2000s, but I played outside pretty much every day, climbing trees and hitting my friends with sticks or clods of dust (and getting hit in return). My school had a rope in the gymnasium going up to the ceiling (~30ft). Starting in kindergarten, we would climb it. There was a 2 inch foam mat at the bottom in case someone fell. I guess the idea was that no kid who could make it to the top would let go, and anyone who couldn’t make it to the top would fall before getting very high. I remember jumping off of trees and playscapes onto the ground from distances that would break most adults’ legs, and somehow nobody ever got hurt (kids have strong bones - I saw a kid fall out of a ski lift and get up and ski away).

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"The biggest barrier to children’s freedom is us – the adults in their lives." is well said. But "our own fears." spring from vast mis-steps that Western civilisation has taken in recent decades. Our unhealthy obsessions with 'health and safety' have always been common-sense-apparent as stupid to many people during this time but they have juggernauted along anyway....part of the great Mass-mediated-'Expert' Complex that has engulfed us.

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Thank you so much for the well thought out, well written article! As a mom of a young one, I try really hard to let my daughter engage in risky play. It is challenging to figure out what is appropriate for her age, though. I would love some examples and/or focus on how to cultivate this with little ones (1-4Y)!

For example, my husband built our daughter a regular-size slide and playground in our backyard. She can climb it by herself, but am I reducing her sense of risk and self-confidence by standing behind her as she climbs? I try REALLY HARD to not tell her to be careful haha. I guess my question is, what are the supervision guidelines you'd recommend for small children? (i.e., I'm not about to let her go play by herself near a body of water without supervision, because she can't swim.)

And, just to be Devil's advocate, is there evidence that the reduction in free play has led to the physical "safety" kids enjoy today? Are there studies that point to the root cause of this reduction in injury? (e.g., seat belts, better hospital care, etc.)

"Yet statistics show that it has never been a safer time to be a child. Injury-related deaths are at an all-time low in most Western nations. In the US, deaths from unintentional injuries fell by 73% for boys and 85% for girls between 1973 and 2010. This misperception of risk creates the parental paradox. "

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author

Thanks for your post, Rachel.

Re: injury rates, yes we do know why they went down. The leading cause of death in the 1970s was (and still is) cars - kids as passengers in cars. Injury rates dropped mostly through the introduction of important traffic safety measures, like seat belts, drunk driving laws, daytime running lights, etc. Play has never been a leading cause of injury death or serious injury.

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Feb 28Liked by Mariana Brussoni

Thanks Mariana, I appreciate your quick reply and that makes complete sense. Looking forward to learning more about your work!

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I think this needs to be included in the article, a lot of folks commenting about this here and it's a gaping hole in the arguments made.

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Well-said

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But why did “unintentional injuries” fall? It would make sense for them to fall if less kids are engaging in risky play.

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Kids who are allowed to have risky play develop good judgment and rarely attempt things they actually cannot do. When my daughter was 1 and wanted to climb on the big kids’ playground I’d stay relatively close mostly to make sure the other kids respected her.

But now that she’s 3 I stay on the sidelines. It’s fun to see her learn to solve problems on her own.

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Practice "loving neglect" to prepare your kids for the world. Helicopter parenting is a sure fire way for kids to become anxious, insecure adults. They must get dirty, bump and bruise themselves, test themselves to discover who they are, become resilient and build selfconfidence. Be there when your kids really need you.

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Seems like a heavy focus on physical or spatial risk rather than the risks that come from interacting with a broad mix of diverse personalities - bullies, neurodiverse, disadvantaged - which would seem equally or more productive in development.

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I have always believed that the best thing that parents, and other adults can do for the positive development of children is to introduce them to opportunities to learn, grow and excel at ‘things’. AKA, introduce children to things they might not consider interesting if left to their own devices. Or, when micro-managed by their protectors and benefactors. In a world of free choice and when allowed to decide their own fates, exploration of all the world is critical, in my opinion to personal growth and to confidence-building. By being taught to there is much more to life than always “playing it safe”, one learns to more openly seek out alternative choices and decisions rather than what is succinctly possible or doable. Is there no better way to teach someone that freedom, in all its varied possibilities, should be our manifest destiny as thinking individuals who seek fulfillment and happiness from life?

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The world holds so much opportunity. Fostering creativity, free thinking and providing challenges. Makes kids grow into thinking citizens better qualified to work through problems and find solutions that can make a difference in the world.

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Great article! We operate a microschool and find it's often because of the wrong implicit models and metaphors we have for childhood and learning, and life itself. Over a two-hundred year slow-slide, play in its unvarnished form has become an afterthought. Even when we discuss it, we structure it and put it a padded room. The fear of litigation nudges us in that direction. Have written about our experience and learning here https://blog.comini.in/p/how-do-we-enable-playful-learning

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So sadly true! Fear of retribution, though a clear and ever present danger, is so prevalent today that it will always need to be acknowledged. The infamous quote that ..”the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” should concurrently be considered. Fear is the great motivator of both procrastination, and the failure to consider the potential for more positive outcomes in the things we do.

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