Conversation "instigators" Amy Dickinson, training and education manager for KaBOOM!, a national non-profit dedicated to saving play for America's children; Julia Steiny, columnist for Education News and director of the Youth Restoration Project; Angelica Almlid Barrows, who raised her kids in Norway and the US; and Museum director Janice O’Donnell sparked a rich and lively audience exchange. Following is a summary of the evening’s themes and great moments, plus resources shared and some of the lingering questions.
On play and risk in other cultures
- During her Peace Corps service in Paraguay, Amy Dickinson noticed that kids played differently, and that the culture had a more common sense attitude toward kids’ play.
- Angelica Barrows talked about the outdoor preschool that three of her children attended in Norway and shared beautiful images of children climbing, building, playing in the mud, and outdoors in all weather. “Perhaps because of those experiences, my kids are rarely bored and take on mental and physical challenges – learning a new skill is something they have patience with, and confidence they will succeed.” She noted that there are fewer liability issues in planning playgrounds in Europe.
On perception of risk
- In raising her now-grown kids, Julia Steiny said her philosophy was to “calculate the medical damage and let them fall…. How else are they going to learn balance?”
- “There’s a need for conversations about real vs. perceived risks,” and the role of the media in confusing the two.
On barriers to allowing kids to play and take risks
- Strict safety regulations for designing playgrounds
- Rules and restricted time in school: recess is being cut and curriculum doesn’t allow for play
- “Part of the problem is no eyes on the street… people don’t know their neighbors,” and we’re creating danger for ourselves by keeping kids inside instead of getting to know people. One solution: programming parks and public spaces – community gardens, classes, cleaning up trash and getting the neighborhood invested and willing to take ownership.
On adventure playgrounds
- It's important to recognize that kids actually play more safely when they understand there are risks. “At adventure playgrounds, kids are learning to deal with risky elements in an environment of controlled risk.”
- There are plenty of liabilities at adventure playgrounds but parents must take responsibility for allowing their kids to play there.
- A parks and rec representative shared a story of a parent whose toddler was burned on a hot slide after being placed there and demanded, ‘You should have signs up.’ Her reflection: “With the balance of liability and educating parents, it’s hard to have free play.”
- “The legal system here takes all of the onus of parenting off of us…its someone else’s fault. Who can I blame and what can I get out of it?”
- The result of overprotecting kids, paraphrasing Finding Nemo: “I won’t ever let anything happen to you!” “But if nothing ever happens, then nothing will ever happen.”
- “We live in a society where raising children is almost a science... You almost need to go to school to be a parent.”
- “We’re atomized, very separate, wisdom is not getting passed down the way it used to.” “Parents don’t have others looking out for them.”
On developing emotional intelligence
- “More and more kids are coming to school with anxiety disorders – there’s so much fear back and forth between kids and parents…We need to educate parents about emotional intelligence and learning balance and limits.”
- College counselors are reporting that kids in top tier schools need more and more counseling – “and these are the kids we take care of…we teach resiliency to no one.”
On preparedness for the real world
- “Test scores are dropping. We’re trying to build Algebra I on top of nothing. Kids go in to science class with no real experience.” Julia Steiny cited Susan Linn’s idea of the mitigated world – “kids never encounter the world as it actually is.”
- We have to stop solving problems for kids and “help them figure out how to.”
The lingering questions
- Amidst the obstacles, how do we continue to advocate for free play in our parks? Our schools?
- How do we prepare kids to take risks and challenges?
- What does it take to raise a free range kid, while living your life and getting things done?
The evening closed with a reminder about how important it is to keep talking to one another and sharing resources and ideas. Join the conversation on the PlayWatch listserv to tackle these and other big questions, and see the Kids, Play and Risk resource sheet (pdf) we prepared for this event for TONS of great articles, books and websites.
Please contact Megan Fischer if you have ideas for future community conversation topics, or if you're interested in presenting a screening of “Where Do the Children Play?”
"In the real world, life is filled with risks... and reasonable risks are essential for children’s healthy development."
– Dr. Joe Frost
– Dr. Joe Frost