EDITORIAL: Playing in an age of fear

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As a society, we’re in the middle of a decades-long collective effort to minimize risk for children.

As a result, kids are safer from injury and organizations are safer from litigation but we’ve changed the way children play.

Once upon a time, children would sword fight with sticks, sled down dangerous hills, swing from tall monkey bars and overcome other minor perils.

Nowadays, the way kids play looks very different than how you likely remember it from when you were a child.

Metal slides, seesaws and merry-go-rounds are becoming a thing of the past. To comply with regulations, wood and metal is replaced with plastic or padding, and some of the more extreme pieces of playground equipment have been retired.

Kids are much safer as a result but at the same time it’s getting harder and harder for them to engage in controlled danger.

Last week, we reported the Yellowknife Gymnastics Club has made its trampolines off-limits to all recreational activities, include day camps, birthday parties and drop-ins.

The shift came into effect on July 1 after Gymnastics BC’s insurance broker Marsh Canada – which NWT Gymnastics buys insurance from – decided not to cover recreational trampoline use.

Due to the new insurance regulations, only competitive athletes and structured classes with certified instructors can use the trampolines at the Multiplex.

In all fairness, trampolines are dangerous. Kids can sprain risks or ankles, collide with others in the air or injure themselves attempting some stunt. There have been several high profile injuries in B.C. and a 46-year-old father from Victoria was killed last year after somersaulting into a foam pit at a trampoline park.

Obviously, safety is important. No one one wants an unhappy accident but some researchers argue that risky play can actually be important to a child’s development.

Ellen Sandseter, a professor at Queen Maud University in Trondheim, Norway, has studied risky play in children. She has identified six categories of risks that seem to attract children everywhere in their play.

These are experimenting with heights, moving at high speeds, using dangerous tools, playing with dangerous elements such as fire, roughhousing and unsupervised wandering. In a 2011 article in the journal Evolutionary Psychology, Sandseter wrote that through risky play, kids learn how to problem solve, persevere past obstacles and develop an understanding of their inner selves.

While engaging in risky play, kids deal with manageable quantities of fear, which they learn to overcome and this helps them when they encounter real-life dangers.

Alas, when a child does get seriously hurt, especially in an institutional setting, such as the Multiplex, it’s very likely the parents will sue for damages, lost time from work, and pain and suffering.

This puts organizations like the Yellowknife Gymnastics Club in a tough spot. It likely doesn’t have the resources to fend off a large claim outside its insurance coverage. A particularly large lawsuit could very well mean no gymnastics club for anybody, and that wouldn’t certainly be a far worse outcome than having no trampoline for birthday parties.

We applaud the club’s efforts to replace trampolines with bouncy castles and perhaps air-tracks if they become available. Kids are sure to have plenty of fun with these latter pieces of equipment, and even exercise their drive for danger in a much safer setting.

Society should take heed though of the developmental risks of bubble-wrapping our children to the point of weakening their ability to cope in the real world. And also the dangers of too little physical activity. A growing body of research shows that all that time in front of video games and smartphones could be addictive and developmentally harmful.

But this would require a more physically active, less litigious society and that doesn’t seem likely in this day and age.

Finding the balance is a tricky proposal but one that needs to be pursued.

It will not serve future generations to rear children who can’t see the dangers beyond the smart phone screen in front of them.

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