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Where are you when your child is on the monkey bars?

  1. Rushing to get her down as fast as possible.
  2. Warning her from the sidelines to be careful.
  3. Watching without comment, ready to help if she gets into trouble.
  4. Reading, checking your email, talking to friends.

Of course, every child is different and it makes a difference if the monkey-bar child is 18 months old or four. But the truth of the matter is this: children need challenges. A too-safe world keeps them small. In order to learn the limits of their abilities and to expand those abilities, kids have to push the edges of their known worlds into new worlds of mastery.

Playgrounds, in particular, can be too safe, not so much because they present no challenge but because parents don’t permit children to go into danger. I’m a fan of that rubber mulch that lets a child bounce a bit when he falls. But that mulch is there because falls are expected. Removing all chance of falling by insisting a child say close to the ground or by insisting he hold your hand doesn’t keep a child safe as much as it limits his development.

Former New York City parks commissioner Henry Stern puts it this way: “I grew up on the monkey bars in Fort Tryon Park, and I never forgot how good it felt to get to the top of them. I didn’t want to see that playground bowdlerized. I said that as long as I was parks commissioner, those monkey bars were going to stay.”

A study of children’s risky play found that risk tends to come in six varieties: climbing high, going fast, handling dangerous objects, being near dangerous phenomena (like fire or water), wrestling and other combat, and being away from adults. Researchers found that children manage their own level of challenge with these risks, going a bit further with risk each time, but regulating the danger themselves. Lead author of the study, Ellen Sandseter, says, “The best thing is to let children encounter these challenges from an early age, and they will then progressively learn to master them through their play over the years.”

In addition, there is no evidence that “safer” playgrounds, with lower structures and softer surfaces, have reduced injuries. Risk management professor David Ball reports that some injuries, including arm fractures, actually increased when softer surfaces were introduced. He explains this by saying that “safe” playgrounds actually disguise risks so that children are less able to regulate the level of challenge and get into trouble.

As every parent knows, a trip to the playground is no fun if there’s no challenge. The experience quickly becomes boring. So what can you do?

We all know how important it is that children be active and play outside. Make certain that your children’s outdoor play stimulates not only their muscles but also their brains. Let them stretch their abilities by making certain not everything is always safe.

© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Developmentally Appropriate Parenting, at your favorite bookstore.