Why Are the Playgrounds Empty?

By Pam Lobley

This is a playground in the middle of my busy, family-centered town. Where were the kids? Yes, there are often moms or nannies here with little children: babies on swings or toddlers dashing around. But school aged kids are mostly absent.

This depresses me. First of all, there is nothing that lifts the spirits more than walking by a playground and seeing children shouting and running all over it like bees in a hive. The life force of rambunctious children is irresistible.

Additionally, I remember how my own two kids thrived on playgrounds. I have two boys, and neither of them were very interested in organized sports. They were extremely active, though, and wanted to play and be outdoors with other kids as much as possible.

We all know why the playgrounds are empty – or at least – underutilized. Grade school kids are in after care programs, or they’re shuttled around to dance, tutors and sports practices. Most kids today have very little free time because they are engulfed in the “getting ahead” game of life. But that is not the whole story. There is something even more insidious going on here that threatens our kids.

Here is the fine print on the Welcome sign that greets the families who come to this playground.

“Children have strangled and died when their clothes caught on slides and other playground equipment. Before allowing children to play, remove helmets, scarves, necklaces, hood cords, neck drawstrings, and mittens connected through the sleeves. Also remove any foreign ropes, strings or shoelaces that may be tied to the equipment. All playground equipment and rubber surfacing may become hot enough to cause burns. Check for hot surfaces before allowing children to play.”

OK, seriously? This is the “welcome” sign?

Obviously, the sign is an attempt to ward off lawsuits from angry parents. If a child sprains his wrist falling off the monkey bars, is that an unfortunate consequence of normal outdoor play, or gross negligence on the part of the monkey bar manufacturer? Some parents have become so fearful and controlling that they refuse to accept any risk at all for their children’s benefit.

Between them my two sons have had five fractured/broken wrists and two broken ankles. Only one of these accidents was a result of outdoor play; the others were a result of roughhousing, an icy driveway and jogging. Should I tell them to give up jogging? Of course not.

We have started to believe that play carries a high level of risk, and that fear just feeds upon itself. This same playground was here when my kids were little, but the sign was not. If I had seen that sign, I might have suddenly called into question my own parenting instincts and decided that this playground was more dangerous than I realized and that we should just go home. Maybe only neglectful parents let their kids play here. I better just forget about outdoor play, bubble wrap my kids and plant them in front of the TV instead.

Why is parental fear so pervasive? It’s not that things are so dangerous today, it’s that there are more ways to control things now. Car seats, helmets, Purell lotion, Airborne spray, organic cleaning products -- all designed to swoon us into the idea that nothing bad ever has to happen. Our age of plenty has tricked us into the idea that risk is not a natural part of life.

The real risk today is not that kids will get hurt, it is that they will grow up deprived of the outdoor play so crucial to their well-being. If we truly believe that outdoor play is too risky – what will our kids miss? The chance to crawl under a thorny bush in a game of Manhunt. The feeling of walking home with socks and shoes fully soaked. That moment when your sled hits a bump and you fly off, landing a foot away in the snow. The giddiness of getting to the second or third branch on a tree you climb. Is childhood still childhood without these types of experiences?

Of course we are terrified that our children will be badly hurt. But equally terrifying is what they might miss. Life is at its best when it is full of wonder, and so much of the wonder of life is found during childhood in random, unaccounted for moments.

In our age of plenty, our kids might just miss out on the richest gifts life can offer.

Pam Lobley is a columnist, instructional aide and the author of Why Can't We Just Play? What I Did When I Realized My Kids Were Way Too Busy.

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