Pomelo is happy to share this essay about letting kids get a little dirt on their knees written for us by Katie Clark. She is a freelance blogger and writer from the UK (so be sure to read this piece with a British accent).
Recently, whilst playing at a local park with my son, I was accosted by a dog-walker. Now, I’m usually quite happy to stop and chat with others out enjoying the fresh air. You learn where to find the freshest frogspawn, the location of a field covered in a blanket of delicious daffodils or sometimes just have a grumble over the weather. But not on this day. For on this day, as on many others actually, my son happened to be climbing a tree. To me, this is one of the joys of childhood. Negotiating a path through the branches to share a view of the world with the birds, perhaps even enjoying a little picnic from your lofty position. But not according to this woman. Apparently, climbing trees is a dangerous and barbaric activity, exposing children to all sorts of dangers. If you want to look at the world from on high, download an app and experience it virtually. Not only will you not get dirt all over your hands, but you won’t risk an injury either.
I must admit that my response was a completely involuntarily, yet enormous, snort of derision. Unfortunately though, the sad truth is that so many of us don’t let our children play outside because of the perceived dangers. In fact, almost three times as many children in the UK are admitted to hospital with arms broken attained falling out of bed than those attained falling out of trees. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating a world in which we expose our children to unnecessary danger; I’m not suggesting they hang upside down from a branch fifty feet up or anything, but surely we need to prepare our children for the realities of life by allowing them to experience some element of risk. Risk is a fact of life. Outdoor play might not be able to replicate the exact risks our children will need to face in adulthood, but it’s a great arena to practise in.
Climbing trees encourages children to test their own limits; to develop problem skills by using trial and error to work out the best approach; it teaches them not to shy away from fear. We need to equip our children with self-reliance and the knowledge that we do bounce back from bumps and bruises. If we don’t, we’re in danger of creating a society too afraid to try anything. What’s that going to do to our economies, I wonder?
A study by Play England found that 17% of British children have been banned from playing tag-and-chase because it’s dangerous. 21% aren’t allowed to play with conkers. I’ve taught in several primary schools which have banned games on the playground lest a child should slip or scrape a knee. It’s deemed too risky. Yes, we live in a litigious society and schools must live in terror of being sued by a parent, furious that little Jonny has a paper-cut, but these fears cannot be used to prevent child development. By seeking to over-protect our children, we’re doing them a huge disservice.
I recently read an article which illustrates this perfectly. A child in a New Zealand school broke his arm whilst playing outside during break. The child’s father, anxious about the situation, made an appointment to see the principal. Fearing the worst and with visions of lawsuits swimming in front of his eyes, the principal met with the parent. Refreshingly, the parent was not anxious that more children may become injured, but was concerned that his son’s broken arm may lead to a ban on playground games. This is exactly the sort of attitude we need to encourage.
Aside from the importance of outdoor play from a character building perspective, we need to give our children opportunities to be free to play without adult direction. So many so-called helicopter parents stifle their children’s creativity and imagination by hovering around them, scrutinising their every move. Soft play areas are a perfect example. Yes, we let our children play freely but we fence them inside a huge box of foam, so what are they actually learning? They’re not experiencing the joy of finding a cave in the rock and pretending it was once used by smugglers. The only cave in a soft play area is made from bouncy plastic and is about as exciting as bedtime. All the hiding places are created by adults; there’s no chance to bury yourself under a mountain of leaves or squeeze through a tiny gap in some bushes. The element of fun and adventure is missing.
This video, made by a Vermont film maker, visiting an adventure playground in the UK, demonstrates that we don’t need to give our children all the answers. By giving them the freedom to choose their own games, their own resources and encouraging them to use their own imaginations, we can let them experience the sheer joy of childhood.
Yes, it’s terrifying when your child is 30 feet up a tree or swinging across a river on a rope, but that’s what being a parent is about. We instinctively want to protect our children, but we are failing as our duties as parents if we do not allow them to explore the world they live in and prepare them for life. Perhaps it’s time to lighten up a bit.