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Sue Lani Madsen: Child’s play – safe or sorry

Sue Lani Madsen (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Sue Lani Madsen (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Heading over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house next week will undoubtedly trigger a few family disagreements at the Thanksgiving dinner table. If not over politics, over child-rearing.

Young parents have been socialized to be on guard against hazards at all times, in an era when childhood has never been safer in the United States. Activities are weighed for educational value with safety first, last and always.

When Grandma brings out the old 1960s Tonka trucks and dusts off a set of heavy wood blocks, parents might recoil. The trucks have dangerous, sharp edges – ixnay on the trucks. The blocks? Definitely require adult coaching to assure the child learns sound building principles for maximum educational impact. And if there’s more than one child, an adult must be present to settle squabbles.

We’ve turned play into serious adult business.

But taking risks and spending unsupervised time in child-directed free play is essential for cognitive, emotional and physical development, say the experts. It’s where children learn the arts of self-regulation, governance and compromise essential to a functioning free society. Children playing their own made-up games with found objects must negotiate ground rules everyone can live with if they want to play at all.

Independent risk taking is a hard sell to parents in a litigious, better-safe-than-sorry society. In a 2016 study published in the journal Child Development titled “Playing With Knives: The Socialization of Self-Initiated Learners,” author David Lancy summarizes how tool handling as play is essential for hunter/gatherer and similarly agrarian societies. Four-year-olds in the Maniq tribe in Thailand capably gut and skin small game, while in our Euro-American culture a 9-year-old asked an observer for help buttering his bread because he was not allowed to use a knife. Not even a dull butter knife.

The Maniq culture allows risk and socializes for capability. Our dominant cultural norm teaches the world is unsafe and to wait for the expert. If we want citizens who can evaluate risks, negotiate compromise and govern themselves, then children must have opportunities to practice those skills and experience both success and failure. It’s the basis of free-range parenting blogs and the “adventure playground” movement. Picture a junkyard, where boards and blocks become a spaceship with the help of a few bent nails, water and dirt make squishy mud for pies and a disagreement over who gets to ride the tenuously attached tire swing first is adjudicated by its juvenile creator. The only adults allowed inside the playground are specially trained “playworkers” who know how to bite their tongue while handing out the hammers and saws.

The most famous adventure playground might be The Land, a 1-acre Welsh play area featured in a 2015 documentary film. Children play with pallets, tires, wheelbarrows, ladders, an occasional abandoned boat, old shopping carts and other odds and ends of junk. It has a brook running through it. Playing with fire is allowed. Parents are not.

There are very few formal adventure playgrounds in the U.S., many more in Europe. There is only one listed in Washington, located on affluent Mercer Island. The list of rules includes requiring any child under 12 to be accompanied by an adult, mandatory helmets, parents encouraged to stay and play, and staff guidance. That’s not an adventure playground, allowing kids to try new things and solve problems themselves. It’s been ruined by the culture of safety first, safety always.

We can’t just blame lawyers. American parents step in with the best of intentions to organize play and micromanage risk. And it’s American parents who can change those social norms. All children need is breathing room.

Let them play with the old Tonka trucks and butter their own bread at Thanksgiving dinner. Fill the basement or garage or living room with cardboard boxes, old sheets, clothespins and interesting objects. Invite over a few neighbor kids with like-minded parents, turn them loose and shut the door.

And if you hear any arguing, tell them to figure it out. Our kids may never need to skin a critter for dinner like the Maniq, but they do need to practice playing well with others. So do we all.

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