Mariana Brussoni is an assistant professor at the University of British Columbia in public health and pediatrics, and lead author of a major ikddditnai
report on the health benefits of “risky” play. The study determined what Free-Rangers feel in their (once in a while broken) bones: Too much supervision and safe-to-the-point-of-stultifying play spaces prevent kids from getting the kind of exercise and life skills they need.
Her study appears at the same time as Canada’s ParticipACTION report, which states: “Access to active play in nature and outdoors—with its risks—is essential for healthy child development. We recommend increasing children’s opportunities for self-directed play outdoors in all settings—at home, at school, in child care, the community and nature.” The takeaway? We are making our kids too safe to succeed.
Here’s an excerpt from the excellent interview Maclean’s magazine did with Brussoni:
Q: Your research reviewed 18 studies that examined “play where children can disappear [or] get lost, play at great heights, and rough-and-tumble play.” I picture helicopter parents squirming in agony as I say this. Why did we develop this parental paranoia?
A: We have this growing movement to what I call anxiety-based caregiving—caregiving where decisions about childhood and what children need are made based on anxiety, rather than stepping back a bit and thinking about what might be best for child development. You’re in a playground and you hear, “Be careful!” “Get down!” “Watch out!” Those are things that are based on anxiety, not on stepping back and thinking: What does the child hear when you’re saying those things? What the child hears is: “The world is a dangerous place. You don’t trust me to navigate that world. I need you to take care of me; I can’t be independent myself.”
Q: Are those fears legitimate? Are more kids losing eyes, breaking backs, being scooped by strangers?
A: As an injury-prevention researcher, I know the data. Kids have never been safer than they are right now. When I talk to parents, they are afraid of injuries in general, but there are two things that overwhelm them. One is kidnapping—“stranger danger.” The other is motor vehicles, their child being hit by a car. Kidnappings are so rare, it’s really hard to get statistics on them. The last statistics I was able to find were from a report from the RCMP looking at kidnappings in 2000-01. Kidnappings happen, but kids are being kidnapped by people they know. In that two-year period, there was only one instance of a child getting kidnapped by a stranger. It works out to a rate of one in 14 million. The likelihood is very small. Parents are right to be afraid of motor vehicles; they are the leading cause of death for children. But what parents don’t realize is that it’s kids in cars, not kids outside of cars.
Q: So kids being driven to piano practice, as opposed to kids running across the street?
A: Exactly. Pedestrian injuries happen, but it’s eight times more common for a child to actually get seriously injured in a car than outside of it. Parents, in an effort to keep children safe, are driving them around from one supervised activity to another, not realizing that they’re actually putting them in more danger that way.
Q: What do parents say about your research? Are you considered subversive?
A: With parents, I can tell them there’s a one-in-14-million-chance that their kids will get kidnapped. I can tell them their kids are more likely to get hit in a car than out of it, and it has very little impact. What influences parents is the research showing how a lack of ability to take risks affects their child’s development, health and well-being.
Q: Let’s explore that. What are the benefits?
A: The studies showed that physical activity increased, while sedentary behaviour decreased. Social health and behaviour increased, and, what’s also important, there were no adverse effects in engaging in risky outdoor play.
Q: They also found benefits I wouldn’t have expected: conflict resolution, even negotiating decisions about substance abuse and sexual behaviour. How are they linked to risky outdoor play?
A: In supervised activities, there’s somebody else guiding the activities; they don’t have to set the goals for what they want to do and how they want to engage in it. When they’re out in the neighbourhood, they’re deciding, “Okay, let’s build a fort. Let’s play prisoner. Let’s play capture the flag.” They’re negotiating back and forth to decide what the rules will be, how it’s going to work, who’s going to do what. There’s a lot more opportunity to develop those social skills.
Expecting kids to know how to make wise decisions and look after themselves when we limit their opportunities to do that makes about as much sense as expecting them to know how to drive safely without ever letting them practice. – L.