The Revolution Will Not Be Supervised

If we want our kids to be their smartest, bravest, and most creative and independent selves, we’ve got to let them play with fire.

kid holding sword
Peter Yang/August

A trio of boys tramps along the length of a wooden fence, back and forth, shouting like carnival barkers. “The Land! It opens in half an hour.” When the gate finally swings open, the boys and about a dozen other children race directly to their favorite spots. “Is this a junkyard?” asks my five-year-old son, Gideon, who has come with me to visit. “Not exactly,” I tell him. The Land is a playground that takes up nearly an acre at the far end of a quiet housing development in North Wales. It’s only two years old but could just as well have been here for decades. The ground is muddy in spots and, at one end, slopes down steeply to a creek. The center of the playground is dominated by a high pile of tires that is growing ever smaller as a redheaded girl and her friend roll them down the hill and into the creek. “Why are you rolling tires into the water?” my son asks. “Because we are,” the girl replies.

Someone has started a fire in the tin drum in the corner. Three boys lounge in the only unbroken chairs around it. Nearby, a couple of other boys are doing mad flips on a stack of filthy mattresses, which makes a fine trampoline. At the other end of the playground, younger kids dart in and out of large structures made of wooden pallets stacked on top of one another. Occasionally a group knocks down a few pallets—just for the fun of it or to build some new kind of slide or fort or unnamed structure.

Other than some walls lit up with graffiti, there are no bright colors or anything else that belongs to the usual playground landscape: no shiny metal slide, no yellow seesaw with a central ballast to make sure no one falls off, no rubber bucket swing for babies. There is, however, a frayed rope swing that carries you over the creek and deposits you on the other side, if you can make it that far (otherwise, it deposits you in the creek). On this day, the kids seem excited by a walker that was donated by one of the elderly neighbors and is repurposed, at different moments, as a scooter, a jail cell, and a gymnastics bar.

cute kid with glasses
Peter Yang/August

The Land is an “adventure playground.” In the United Kingdom, such playgrounds became popular in the 1940s as a result of the efforts of Lady Marjory Allen of Hurtwood, a landscape architect and children’s advocate. Allen wanted to design playgrounds with loose parts that kids could move around to create their own makeshift structures. But more important, she wanted to encourage a “free and permissive atmosphere” with as little adult supervision as possible. The idea was that kids should face what, to them, seem like “really dangerous risks” and conquer them alone. That, she said, is what builds self-confidence and courage. But these playgrounds are so out of sync with today’s norms that when I showed fellow parents back home a video of kids lighting fires, the most common sentence I heard from them was “This is insane.” That might explain why there are so few adventure playgrounds left around the world and why a newly established one, such as the Land, feels like an act of defiance.

The Land is staffed by professionally trained “playworkers,” who keep a close eye on the kids but don’t intervene all that much. Claire Griffiths, the manager, describes her job as “loitering with intent.” Although the playworkers almost never stop the kids from what they’re doing, before the playground had even opened, the workers had filled binders with “risk benefits assessments” for nearly every activity. (In the two years since the Land opened, no one has been injured outside of the occasional scraped knee.) Here’s the list of benefits for fire: “It can be a social experience to sit around with friends, make friends, to sing songs and to dance around, to stare at; it can be a cooperative experience where everyone has jobs. It can be something to experiment with, to take risks, to test its properties, its heat, its power, to relive our evolutionary past.” The risks? “Burns from fire or fire pit” and “children accidentally burning each other with flaming cardboard or wood.” In this case, the benefits win because a playworker is always nearby, watching for impending accidents but otherwise letting the children figure out lessons about fire on their own.

“I’m gonna put this cardboard box in the fire,” one of the boys says.

“You know that will make a lot of smoke,” says Griffiths.

“Where there’s smoke, there’s fire,” he answers, and in goes the box. Smoke instantly fills the air and stings our eyes. The other boys sitting around the fire cough, duck their heads, and curse him out. In my playground set, we would call this natural consequences, although we rarely have the nerve to let even much tamer scenarios than this one play out. By contrast, the custom at the Land is for parents not to intervene. In fact, it’s for parents not to come at all. The dozens of kids who passed through the playground on the day I visited came and went on their own. In seven hours, aside from Griffiths and the other playworkers, I saw only two adults.

Even though women work vastly more hours now than they did in the 1970s, mothers—and fathers—spend much more time with their children than they used to. My own mother didn’t work all that much when I was younger, but she didn’t spend vast amounts of time with me either. She didn’t arrange my playdates or drive me to swimming lessons. On weekdays after school, she just expected me to show up for dinner; on weekends, I barely saw her at all. I, on the other hand, might easily spend every waking Saturday hour with one, if not all three, of my children, taking one to a soccer game, the second to a theater program, the third to a friend’s house, or I might just hang out with them at home. When my daughter was about ten, my husband suddenly realized that in her whole life, she had probably spent not more than ten minutes unsupervised by an adult. Not ten minutes in ten years.
When you ask parents why they are more protective than their parents were, they might answer that the world is more dangerous now than it was when they were growing up. But this isn’t true, or at least not in the way that we think. Maybe the real questions are, How did these fears come to have such a hold over us? And what have our children lost—and gained—as we’ve succumbed to them?

In 1978, a toddler named Frank Nelson made his way to the top of a 12-foot slide in Hamlin Park in Chicago, with his mother a few steps behind him. The structure was known as a tornado slide because it twisted on the way down. But the boy never made it that far. He fell through the gap between the handrail and the steps and landed on his head on the asphalt. A year later, his parents sued the Chicago Park District and the two companies that had manufactured and installed the slide. Frank had fractured his skull in the fall and suffered permanent brain damage. He was forced to wear a helmet all the time to protect his fragile skull.

The Nelsons’ lawsuit was one of a number that fueled a backlash against potentially dangerous playground equipment. Theodora Briggs Sweeney, a consumer advocate and safety consultant from John Carroll University, became a public crusader for playground reform. “The name of the playground game will continue to be Russian roulette, with the child as unsuspecting victim,” Sweeney wrote in 1979. She was concerned about many things—the height of slides, the space between railings, the danger of loose S-shaped hooks that hold parts together—but what she worried about most was asphalt and dirt. Sweeney declared that lab simulations showed children could die from a fall of as little as a foot if their head hit asphalt or three feet if their head hit dirt.

A federal government report around that time found that tens of thousands of children were turning up in the emergency room each year because of playground accidents. As a result, in 1981 the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission published the first Handbook for Public Playground Safety, a short set of general guidelines to govern the equipment.

In January 1985, the Chicago Park District settled the suit with the Nelsons. Frank Nelson was guaranteed a minimum of $9.5 million. Park departments all over the country began removing equipment newly considered dangerous. The cultural understanding of acceptable risk began to shift, until any known risk became nearly synonymous with hazard.

At the core of the safety obsession is a view of children that is the exact opposite of Lady Allen’s, “an idea that children are too fragile or unintelligent to assess the risk of any given situation,” argues Tim Gill, author of No Fear, a critique of our risk-averse society. “Now our working assumption is that children cannot be trusted to find their way around tricky physical or social and emotional situations.”

What’s lost amid all this protection? Ellen Sandseter, a professor of early childhood education, observed and interviewed children on playgrounds. In 2011, she published her results. Children, she concluded, have a sensory need to taste danger and excitement; this doesn’t mean that what they do has to actually be dangerous, only that they feel they are taking a great risk. That scares them, but then they overcome the fear. Sandseter identifies six kinds of risky play: 1. Exploring heights, or getting the “bird’s perspective,” as she calls it—“high enough to evoke the sensation of fear.” 2. Handling dangerous tools—using sharp scissors or knives, or heavy hammers that at first seem unmanageable but that kids learn to master. 3. Being near dangerous elements—playing near vast bodies of water or near a fire, so kids are aware there is danger nearby. 4. Rough-and-tumble play wrestling and play fighting—so kids learn to negotiate aggression and cooperation. 5. Speed—cycling or skiing at a pace that feels too fast. 6. Exploring on one’s own.

The final irony is that our close attention to safety has not in fact made a tremendous difference in the number of accidents children have. The number of emergency room visits related to playground equipment, including home equipment, in 1980 was 156,000, or one visit per 1,452 Americans. In 2012, it was 271,475 visits, or one per 1,156 Americans. The number of deaths hasn’t changed much either. Head injuries, a fatal fall onto a rock—most of the horrors that Sweeney described all those years ago turn out to be freakishly rare.

The category on Sandseter’s list that likely makes this generation of parents most nervous is the one involving children’s straying from adult supervision. Parents these days have little tolerance for children’s wandering on their own, for reasons that, much like the fear of playground injuries, have their roots in the 1970s. In 1979, nine months after Frank Nelson fell off that slide, six-year-old Etan Patz left his family’s New York apartment to walk by himself to the school-bus stop. He never came home. The Etan Patz case launched the era of the ubiquitous missing child.

But abduction cases like Etan Patz’s were incredibly uncommon a generation ago and remain so today. What has changed is the nature of the American family and the broader sense of community. For a variety of reasons—divorce, more single-parent families, more mothers working—both families and neighborhoods have lost some of their cohesion. Trust in general has eroded, and parents have sought to control more closely what they can: their children. Ask any of my parenting peers to chronicle a week in their child’s life, and they will likely mention school, homework, after-school classes, organized playdates, sports teams coached by a fellow parent, and very little free, unsupervised time. The result is a “continuous and ultimately dramatic decline in children’s opportunities to play and explore in their own chosen ways,” writes Peter Gray, a psychologist at Boston College.

When Claire Griffiths, the Land’s manager, applies for grants to fund her play spaces, she often lists the advantages of enticing kids outside: combating obesity, developing motor skills. She also talks about the issue Lady Allen talked about all those years ago—encouraging children to take risks so they build their confidence.

But the more nebulous benefits of a freer child culture are harder to explain, even though experiments bear them out. For example, beginning in 2011, Swanson Primary School in New Zealand suspended all playground rules, allowing the kids to run, climb trees, slide down a hill, jump off swings, and play in a “loose-parts pit” that was like a mini adventure playground. The teachers feared chaos, but in fact what they got was less naughtiness and bullying—because the kids were too busy and engaged to want to cause trouble, the principal said.

Kyung-Hee Kim, an educational psychologist at the College of William & Mary, has analyzed results from the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking and found that, over the past decade or more, American children have become “less emotionally expressive, less energetic, less talkative and verbally expressive, less humorous, less imaginative, less unconventional, less lively and passionate, less perceptive, less apt to connect seemingly irrelevant things, less synthesizing, and less likely to see things from a different angle.” The largest drop has been in the measure of “elaboration,” or the ability to take an idea and expand on it in a novel way. Practicing psychologists have also written about the unique identity crisis that this generation faces—a fear of growing up and, in the words of Brooke Donatone, a New York City–based therapist, an inability “to think for themselves.”

Researchers have started pushing back against parental control. But the real cultural shift has to come from parents. We can no more create the perfect environment for our children than we can create perfect children. To believe otherwise is a delusion, and a harmful one; remind yourself of that every time the panic rises.

As the sun set over the Land, I noticed out of the corner of my eye a gray bin—like the kind you would keep your recycling in—about to be pushed down the slope that led to the creek. A kid’s head poked out of the top, and I realized it was my son’s. Even by my relatively laissez-faire parenting standards, the situation seemed dicey. The slope was very steep, and Christian, the kid who was doing the pushing, was only seven. Also, the creek was frigid, and I had no change of clothes for Gideon.

“You might fall in the creek,” said Christian.

“I know,” said Gideon.

Christian had already taught Gideon how to climb up to the highest slide and manage the rope swing. At this point, he’d earned some trust. “I’ll push you gently, OK?”

“Ready, steady, go!” Gideon said in response. Down he went and landed in the creek. In my experience, Gideon is very finicky about water. He hates to have even a drop land on his sleeve while he’s brushing his teeth. I began scheming how to get him new clothes. Could I knock on a neighbor’s door? Or persuade him to sit awhile with the boys by the fire?

“I’m wet,” Gideon said to Christian, and then they raced over to claim some hammers to build a new fort.

Popular Videos

Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest