Should Kids Be Allowed to Channel the Inner Monkey?

Playgrounds shouldn't be dangerous, but they've probably become too safe—and the safety is keeping children from maturing


John Tierney writing in The New York Times on the risks of too much playground safety cites research suggesting that children approach potentially hazardous situations like climbing equipment gradually, and that protecting them even from minor injuries may have the unintended consequence of making them more fearful later in life:
Sometimes, of course, their mastery fails, and falls are the common form of playground injury. But these rarely cause permanent damage, either physically or emotionally. While some psychologists -- and many parents -- have worried that a child who suffered a bad fall would develop a fear of heights, studies have shown the opposite pattern: A child who's hurt in a fall before the age of 9 is less likely as a teenager to have a fear of heights.

As a little kid I was awed by the scale of the metal slides and jungle gyms in the playground of my first elementary school in Chicago. I never reached the top rungs before we moved. But my otherwise protective mother never warned me about them. The steel frameworks were an initiation into still-industrial Chicago.

Only after the introduction of Wikipedia could I easily find a reference source for their inventor, Sebastian Hinton of Chicago's North Shore, and through Google Patent Search get a PDF of his grant, 1,471,465, with its folk anthropology:

[T]he monkey instinct strong in all human beings, and perhaps more clearly displayed in children, makes climbing a sport to which children enthusiastically take, by a psychology about the same as that of a kitten at play with a ball, which of course is practice for hunting.

On that basis, Hinton continued,

I have designed a climbing apparatus, so proportioned and constructed that it provides a kind of forest top through which a troop of children may play in a manner somewhat similar to that of a troop of monkeys through the tree tops in a jungle. At the same time, I have reduced the danger of climbing to a practical minimum.

It's certainly possible that just as too much hygiene has increased the incidence of childhood asthma and allergies, an excess of safety consciousness has made us less resilient. Not that I want to go back to unbelted rides on the front seat of the family car, but I do think that risk, like almost everything else, has a sweet spot, once the danger of permanent injury has been almost eliminated, apart from freak accidents. (As Sandra Aamodt and my friend Sam Wang have observed, helping resolve a controversy about the reasons for the spread of myopia that I encountered when writing Our Own Devices, keeping kids indoors is bad for their eyes.)

Playground safety is representative of many issues in which the absence of regulation invites abuses while excessive precautions have negative unintended consequences. Finding the optimum amount of risk is part of building a more resilient society.

Image: caswell_tom/flickr