Today's Hamilton Spectator carries an alarming story about the dangers of children's playgrounds.
Noting that playground injuries were responsible for 940 emergency room visits in Hamilton-Niagara in a single year (2004-2005), the article quotes Margaret Keresteci from the Canadian Institute for Health Information saying, "People think of playgrounds as safe but they can be dangerous places."
The story is alarming not because of the revelation that children sometimes injure themselve in playgrounds, but because it inadvertently adds a voice to the chorus of paranoid parents who are reacting to the normal risks of active living by ensconcing their children inside sterile indoor bubbles.
As parents and as a society, we need to draw a careful distinction between legitimate and easily preventable risks of disaster and risks of minor, character-building injuries; and acknowledge that attempts to avoid danger can carry their own insidious dangers as well.
Children who never get any time and space to themselves to explore, make their own discoveries, push themselves to new challenges, draw inferences and test them, solve their own problems, take on initiatives, and all the related aspects of independence can grow up emotionally crippled: beholden to extrinsic signals, afraid to take chances, even susceptible to learned helplessness.
In last Saturday's Spec, Dianne Rinehart argued passionately in defence of the risk of childhood injury, citing not only the danger of obesity and related chronic diseases, but also of psychological illness and missed chances to develop confidence and independence as adults.
In the "olden days," before school boards removed playground equipment for fear of law suits, kids climbed monkey bars - or, better yet, swung from trees and ran through forests and fields. Now they need fitness club memberships, "play" is a "work" out, and it has to be scheduled into mum or dad's day, so they can drive them there.
The result? Kids aren't just getting fatter and going slightly stir-crazy, they aren't learning the creative thinking skills they used to acquire through "unorganized" play - as opposed to soccer practice - to become confident, independent, problem-solving adults.
Kids need to fall from trees and, yes, live a little dangerously, research proves, to be prepared to meet life's challenges.
Even as the actual rates of assaults, kidnappings and so on continue to decrease, consciousness of such dangers continues to increase through a combination of public education and what we might call "sensational" news reporting.
Ditto for serious injuries and devastating illnesses, as medicine and the possibility of preventative intervention become more comprehensive through vaccinations, mandatory helmet laws, and so on.
Unfortunately, people are notoriously incapable of accurately weighing relative risks. We're predisposed toward easily visible risks with direct, observable cause/effect relationships, and tend to downplay slower, more insidious connections like that between inactivity and heart disease.
Parents who move to sanitized suburbs and drive their children to the park (if they go at all) to keep them "safe" think nothing of obesity, type II diabetes, heart disease etc. as a direct result of sedentary lifestyles and too much prepared food.
Parents also think nothing of the drastically elevated risk of injury through car accidents when they suddenly have to drive everywhere.
Let's look at the risks. According to the US Centres for Disease Control, of the ten leading causes of injury death in 2001 by age, the number one cause of death for children between 1 and 14 was unintentional motor vehicle collisions, responsible for 2,102 deaths, or 43.9 percent of the total injury deaths listed.
Unintentional drowning was the number two killer, with 791 deaths or 16.5 percent, and unintentional fire/burning was number three, with 482 deaths or 10.1 percent.
Pedestrian deaths and falls combined amounted to 178 deaths, just 3.7 percent.
|Deaths||Percent of Total|
|Pedestrian / Fall||178||3.7%|
Source: 10 Leading Causes of Injury Death by Age Group - 2001, Centres for Disease Control [PDF]
Living in a modern society involves a lot of risk management. In the case of childhood, we need to compare the risk of injury in a playground with the risk of injury from not playing in a playground.
Personally, I'm all for skinned knees, grubby faces, and regular exposure to the risk of minor injury through active living - what Calvin's dad drily called "building character" in Bill Waterson's Calvin and Hobbes comics.
As the father of two children, I'm secretly delighted when they bonk their heads on metal slides, fly off the ends of merry-go-rounds in old parks that still have them, slash their arms on branches while tear-assing through the woods, run around barefoot and get "hobbit feet", build their own toys from plywood and old two-by-fours, and all the wonderful stuff that transforms childhood from a micromanaged ordeal to be endured into a perilous and delightful world to be discovered.
To be sure, I fret and kvetch like most parents. I'm certainly more protective in some ways than my own parents were, especially with letting my children play outside unsupervised. Sometimes, I just can't bear to look (as when my older son hurtles himself off a swing right at its apex and sails through the air).
For parents, it's an ongoing struggle to find the right balance between concern for children's safety and understanding that the biggest danger today's children face comes from timidity and inactivity.
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