This article was originally published in Family Matters magazine and has been republished here with their permission.
If you ask children in Halifax about the play features at the waterfront, such as the submarine playground and the bouncy whales, there is likely one that stands out for every child who visits: the Wave.
Two summers ago #WaveDad made national headlines when his child climbed the piece of public art and toppled over the other side, garnering a collection of injuries that landed him in the IWK. The father launched a petition to put a rail around the top of the wave, or build a slide down the other side for a safer landing.
The reaction to his efforts was not what might be expected by a generation of parents with a reputation for overprotecting their children. Many laughed and proudly brandished their own childhood injury stories like badges of honour, and shook their heads at parents trying to create a bubble-wrapped world for their kids.
Maura Donovan, Dartmouth, is a parent who is passionate about allowing children room to explore independently. She says her benchmark of a society’s comfort level of risk in play is how many children you see climbing trees.
“I think if you’ve got four or five kids in front of you and none of them are that interested in climbing trees, that says something,” she explains, “School age kids really like to climb trees, if they’ve been exposed to that as a possibility.”
Last summer, however, a tree was nearly cut down by the municipality in Regina Beach, Saskatchewan because a child had fallen out of it and broken a limb. That tree, and another nearby, was saved when citizens staged a sit-in until the city backed down.
Haligonians have shown we can talk a good game, but can we actually follow through when it’s our own children? When our toddler is the one at risk of falling six feet through the air off a cement sculpture, or a tree, are we still okay with it?
This past May saw Tim Gill, an independent researcher and writer, from London, England, in Halifax speaking to a packed house about the benefits of what he terms “risky play”. He manages the website www.rethinkingchildhood.com and believes children have a natural inclination for “adventure and uncertainty” that should be encouraged, not discouraged. He says permitting a level of risk in play can increase the confidence and capability in children as they grow; and he is on a mission to encourage parents to, as he says, “untie those apron strings.”
“No child would ever learn to walk or ride a bike if they were not strongly driven to go from what they know and can do easily to what they cannot yet do,” he explains, “When the adults around them take a balanced approach, kids get the chance to learn for themselves how to be resilient in the face of everyday challenges.”
Gill thinks the current “philosophy of protection” we are seeing is partially due to the increased time children spend in houses and in cars, which can make the outside world seem scarier. He suggests that the messages parents receive from society may affect their choices as well.
“The media is also to blame, frightening us with lurid stories about extremely rare tragedies. The authorities don’t help either, when they harass parents for letting their kids go to the park on their own,” he says, referring to the now infamous case of the Meitiv children in Maryland, USA, ages ten and six, who, this past April, were detained by authorities for hours for playing alone in a park a few blocks from home in what has been deemed “the safest suburb in America.”
“Parents need help and support, not finger-pointing and blame,” Gill says.
Christa Jordan, Halifax, has two young children and attended Gill’s talk. She says she’s more lenient than her husband, but she has her limits. She tries to give the children a lot of freedom physically and socially, but her threshold is reached when they are no longer in eyesight.
“I know there are still bad things that can happen out of sight,” she says, “Even though I’m trying to teach them to be independent I always have to be on guard for bad things.”
Stepping Up is the organization that manages Halifax’s Physical Activity Strategy and which hosted Gill’s visit to the city. Scott Penton works in the Project Management office and he thinks Gill’s message is important for today’s families to hear.
“Play, in the natural environment, is a great example of a setting with seemingly infinite levels of challenges and successes to be experienced,” he says, “The growing trend of parents and caregivers over-protecting children from all perceived dangers in this unstructured environment, can actually deprive children of these unique and essential development opportunities.”
Justin Miller agrees. He attended the event with his infant daughter and he wants a different type of childhood for her than the one he sees now.
“I think kids these days tend to be in a bubble or overly protected” he says, “When I was a kid I had huge boundaries. I’d build ramps for bicycles, things like that. I don’t see kids doing things like that any more and I hope that I can provide a less bubble wrapped life for my daughter.”
Many parents nod in agreement, with fond memories of their own “free range” childhood and grand intentions of providing the same for their own children despite societal pressures to keep them cocooned. The reality of trusting children to make the right choices, and trusting the community to keep them safe, can be harder to put into practice. It seems the real test may be how many trees – or Waves - we let our own children climb without hovering at the bottom with a safety net.