In this day and age there is a never ending flow of things that we need to protect our children from. There has been a push in recent years to make play safer for children, and it begs the question, is this in the best interest of our children?
Many parents worry about their children playing outside the home. In order to protect them from getting hurt they simply don’t allow them to go out and play and instead keep them at home. Children are less active today then ever before, spending more time sitting down at home in front of screens. Research has shown that the current generation of children spend the majority of their day sitting, which is associated with all kinds of negative health effects. It seems as though some parents attempts at safety my harm children more then actually help them.
There is obvious value to play. It is more then just fun. It is a fundamental part of childhood that fosters children’s physical and emotional and social development. Many argue that children have a right to play, and that it is the responsibility of society to ensure all children get to play.
Some wonder however whether or not there is a place for dangerous play in a child’s life. Could taking risks and doing things that are dangerous, without being stopped by adults be a good thing for children? One philosopher has argued that there is in fact important value in risky play for children. When raising children, we need to prepare them for adulthood, part of which is learning how to make safe choices. So, allowing children to make risky choices and learn the consequences of those choices at an early age, is important as it can prepare them for later life.
This philosopher proposes an interesting thought experiment to illustrate his argument. Suppose we had an army of Danger Averting Devices (DADs), whose job was to ensure no child ever got hurt while they played. DADs would effectively eliminate all risk to a child’s safety and life. Although at first this may seem to be a good thing, it is troubling because kids would not learn how to self regulate. With DADs as an integral part of childhood, kids may start finding joy in things like jumping of tall buildings, or seeing how close they can get to being hit by a car. Without any natural limits, children will grow up lacking the ability to think critically about potentially dangerous situations in their daily lives.
This does not mean that we should allow children to do whatever they’d like too. For example, it would be irresponsible to let 3 year olds play unsupervised by a busy road, but letting children do age appropriate things is important.
So why does this matter?
The way children play today does not look the same as it did 50 years ago. Play has changed over time. On the school yard, the rules and regulations have been established to protect children as much as possible. Gone are the days of tackle football, baseball bats, and sliding on ice in the winter. These activities have been banned because of the inherent risk for injury that goes along with them. The lengths we are willing go to protect our kids from harm is astounding. Some Toronto schools have even banned cartwheels on the grass surface, and believe it or not, an American school banned all tag games. All of these restrictions placed on what kids are allowed to do has taken the fun out of play, and children are opting to spend their time doing other things. Research has shown that the decline of play in children has lead to increased depression and anxiety, and decreased critical thinking skills and creativity.
It seems reasonable to me that if we stop worrying so much about our children getting hurt, and start worrying about ensuring our kids are getting outside and playing, then overall they would be better off. This means that children may go out and do things that end in scrapped knees, bruised elbows, or maybe even broken bones, but worse things could happen. After all, we live in a country with great health care and the reality is, kids heal. We are privileged enough to live in relatively peaceful neighbourhoods with safe places for our kids to play. It does not seem right to take away the values of risky play simply to avoid a few superficial injuries.
The question that follows of course, is what is too dangerous for our kids, and where should we draw the line? Some philosophers believe that we should only be concerned with risks that will have long term effects on children. They think any injury that will have little to no effect on a child’s adult life should not be a primary concern. For example, we should concern ourselves with head injuries because research has shown that head injuries at an early age can have lasting effects over the course of one’s lifetime. For obvious reasons, it also makes sense to avoid risks that lead to death.
Our focus needs to shift to setting age appropriate limitations on what kinds of play it are acceptable for children to engage in. This requires balancing the value of risky and dangerous play, with the value of protecting our children’s well being.
At the end of the day, it is important that we encourage kids to be kids and allow them to freely explore the world they life in. Think back to the days of your parents or maybe even your grandparents. Far less emphasis was placed on playing safe, and they learned valuable lessons from occasionally getting into trouble and getting hurt.
Journal of the Philosophy of Sport, 2007, 34, 176-193 “Children and Dangerous Sport and Recreation” John Russel, http://journals.humankinetics.com/AcuCustom/Sitename/Documents/DocumentItem/11154.pdf
Children’s Right to Play: An Examination of the Importance of Play in the Lives of Children Worldwide. Working Papers in Early Childhood Development, No. 57, http://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED52253
More on the value of play:
The Decline of play, By Peter Gray: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bg-GEzM7iTk