The dozens of kids who passed through the playground on the day I visited came and went on their own. Griffiths started selling local families on the proposed playground in She talked about the health and developmental benefits of freer outdoor play, and explained that the playground would look messy but be fenced in. But mostly she made an appeal rooted in nostalgia.
She explained some of the things kids might be able to do and then asked the parents to remember their own childhoods. This is how she would win them over.
Hughes moved to the neighborhood after the Land was already open, but when he stopped by, I asked how he would have answered that question. If my parents had found out, they would have grounded me for life. But back then we would get up to all sorts of mischief.
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L ike most parents my age , I have memories of childhood so different from the way my children are growing up that sometimes I think I might be making them up, or at least exaggerating them. I grew up on a block of nearly identical six-story apartment buildings in Queens, New York. In my elementary-school years, my friends and I spent a lot of afternoons playing cops and robbers in two interconnected apartment garages, after we discovered a door between them that we could pry open.
When we got back an hour later, they were still standing in the same spot. They never hopped over the gate, even though they easily could have; their parents never came looking for them, and no one expected them to.
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A couple of them were pretty upset, but back then, the code between kids ruled. I used to puzzle over a particular statistic that routinely comes up in articles about time use: even though women work vastly more hours now than they did in the s, mothers—and fathers—of all income levels spend much more time with their children than they used to.
This seemed impossible to me until recently, when I began to think about my own life. On weekdays after school she just expected me to show up for dinner; on weekends I barely saw her at all. When my daughter was about 10, my husband suddenly realized that in her whole life, she had probably not spent more than 10 minutes unsupervised by an adult. Not 10 minutes in 10 years. In fact, they are the markers of good, responsible parenting.
When you ask parents why they are more protective than their parents were, they might answer that the world is more dangerous than it was when they were growing up. For example, parents now routinely tell their children never to talk to strangers, even though all available evidence suggests that children have about the same very slim chance of being abducted by a stranger as they did a generation ago.
Maybe the real question is, how did these fears come to have such a hold over us? I n , a toddler named Frank Nelson made his way to the top of a foot slide in Hamlin Park in Chicago, with his mother, Debra, a few steps behind him. 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 paralyzed on his left side and had speech and vision problems. His attorneys noted that he was forced to wear a helmet all the time to protect his fragile skull. Theodora Briggs Sweeney, a consumer advocate and safety consultant from John Carroll University, near Cleveland, testified at dozens of trials and became a public crusader for playground reform. She was concerned about many things—the heights of slides, the space between railings, the danger of loose S-shaped hooks holding parts together—but what she worried about most was asphalt and dirt.
In her paper, 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 published 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, the U. To turn up the pressure, Sweeney and a fellow consultant on playground safety, Joe Frost, began cataloguing the horrors that befell children at playgrounds. Between them, they had testified in almost cases and could detail gruesome specifics—several kids who had gotten their heads trapped or crushed by merry-go-rounds; one who was hanged by a jump rope attached to a deck railing; one who was killed by a motorcycle that crashed into an unfenced playground; one who fell while playing football on rocky ground.
They also called for playgrounds nationwide to incorporate rubber flooring in crucial areas. At the time, a reader wrote to the paper:. But these proved to be musings from a dying age. Around the time the Nelson settlement became public, park departments all over the country began removing equipment newly considered dangerous, partly because they could not afford to be sued, especially now that a government handbook could be used by litigants as proof of standards that parks were failing to meet. In anticipation of lawsuits, insurance premiums skyrocketed.
As the Tribune reader had intuited, the cultural understanding of acceptable risk began to shift, such that any known risk became nearly synonymous with hazard. Over the years, the official consumer-product handbook has gone through several revisions; it is now supplemented by a set of technical guidelines for manufacturers. The handbook includes specific prescriptions for the exact heights, slopes, and other angles of nearly every piece of equipment. It is no longer easy to find a playground that has an element of surprise, no matter how far you travel.
Kids can find the same slides at the same heights and angles as the ones in their own neighborhood, with many of the same accessories.
I live in Washington, D. But in , nearly a year after I moved in, the park service tore down the tree house and replaced all the old equipment with a prefab playground set on rubber flooring.
The kids seem to spend most of their time in the sandbox; maybe they like it because the neighbors have turned it into a mini adventure playground, dropping off an odd mixing spoon or colander or broken-down toy car. In a paper, he gives the example of two parents who sued when their child fell over a stump in a small redwood forest that was part of a playground.
They had a basis for the lawsuit. In the mids, Norway passed a law that required playgrounds to meet certain safety standards. Ellen Sandseter, a professor of early-childhood education at Queen Maud University College in Trondheim, had just had her first child, and she watched as one by one the playgrounds in her neighborhood were transformed into sterile, boring places. She wondered whether a similar dynamic might take hold among younger kids as playgrounds started to become safer and less interesting.
Sandseter began observing and interviewing children on playgrounds in Norway. That scares them, but then they overcome the fear. To gauge the effects of losing these experiences, Sandseter turns to evolutionary psychology. Children are born with the instinct to take risks in play, because historically, learning to negotiate risk has been crucial to survival; in another era, they would have had to learn to run from some danger, defend themselves from others, be independent.
Even today, growing up is a process of managing fears and learning to arrive at sound decisions. But if they never go through that process, the fear can turn into a phobia. We might accept a few more phobias in our children in exchange for fewer injuries. But 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. According to the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System, which monitors hospital visits, the frequency of emergency-room visits related to playground equipment, including home equipment, in was ,, or one visit per 1, Americans.
In , it was ,, or one per 1, Americans. From through , the Consumer Product Safety Commission reported deaths associated with playground equipment—an average of 13 a year, or 10 fewer than were reported in Head injuries, runaway motorcycles, a fatal fall onto a rock—most of the horrors Sweeney and Frost described all those years ago turn out to be freakishly rare, unexpected tragedies that no amount of safety-proofing can prevent.
David Ball, a professor of risk management at Middlesex University, analyzed U. Ball has found some evidence that long-bone injuries, which are far more common than head injuries, are actually increasing. Etan had been begging his mother to let him walk by himself; many of his friends did, and that morning was the first time she let him.
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But, as just about anyone who grew up in New York in that era knows, he never came home. I also remember that, sometime during those weeks of endless coverage of the search for Etan, the parents in my neighborhood for the first time organized a walk pool to take us to the bus stop. Over time, the fear drove a new parenting absolute: children were never to talk to strangers. David Finkelhor is the director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center and the most reliable authority on sexual-abuse and abduction statistics for children. A child from a happy, intact family who walks to the bus stop and never comes home is still a singular tragedy, not a national epidemic.
One kind of crime that has increased, says Finkelhor, is family abduction which is lumped together with stereotypical abduction in FBI crime reports, accounting for the seemingly alarming numbers sometimes reported in the media.
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What has changed since the s 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. It is perhaps natural that trust in general has eroded, and that parents have sought to control more closely what they can—most of all, their children.
As we parents began to see public spaces—playgrounds, streets, public ball fields, the distance between school and home—as dangerous, other, smaller daily decisions fell into place. Failure to supervise has become, in fact, synonymous with failure to parent. No more pickup games, idle walks home from school, or cops and robbers in the garage all afternoon. The child culture from my Queens days, with its own traditions and codas, its particular pleasures and distresses, is virtually extinct.
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