Children need play, not bubble wrap
Posted by Dean Holden at December 22nd, 2013
by Jon Heshka, 4 December 2013
The physical and mental-health benefits of playground activity far out-weigh those of banning playground games to keep children safe, according to Jon Heshka of Thompson Rivers University.
As a parent, it’s hard to find fault with the intent behind the letter. No mother or father wants to receive the call from the school saying their child has been injured. How could a principal turn a blind eye and look the other way if kids are being hurt?
Coghlan Fundamental elementary promised to have a “zero-tolerance policy with regards to hands-on play,” resulting in trips to the office for those six-year old rebels and miscreants who are unable to follow the rules.
While the actions of the principal appear excessive, they are becoming representative of the new norm. For example, the Toronto school district spent $6.3 million in 2000 to dismantle 170 school playgrounds that were deemed dangerous, replacing them with safe metal apparatuses. In 2011, a Toronto elementary school banned soccer balls, basketballs, footballs and volleyballs. My children’s school has banned cartwheeling and the “four square” game.
Do games such as these pose inherent risks that are so dangerous to warrant their prohibition from school playgrounds?
These are difficult decisions to make. Where is the fulcrum balancing risk with reward? How do we balance our parental desire to protect children against the benefits of play?
It’s hard to say to what extent the decision to tear down playgrounds or ban tag and soccer are motivated by concern for children’s safety or fear of being sued.
The courts and policy-makers have weighed in and their views may be surprising. Courts will base their decisions on the factors outlined above, including the benefits to be derived from physical activities. Generally speaking, courts will rule that as long as games are played in accordance with accepted norms or rules and are properly supervised, the school could not be held liable.
Schools can and do seek to minimize their exposure to liability by eliminating risks and banning these types of games altogether. An alternative approach would be to recognize the good that can come from such activities but to curb the most egregious behaviour and responsibly monitor the playground for when lines get crossed.
The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents in 2007 gamely tried to hold back the tide from the movement toward the bubble-wrapping of kids: “We need to ask ourselves whether it is better for a child to break a wrist falling out of a tree or get a repetitive strain wrist injury at a young age from using a computer or video games console.”
Would we rather kids occasionally be hurt by playing tag or grow fat from doing nothing? The federal government’s position is Canada is facing a childhood obesity epidemic. Rates of unhealthy weights among children have risen steadily. More than one in four Canadian children are overweight or obese today. Physical and emotional health problems associated with childhood obesity include heart disease, type-2 diabetes, low self-esteem and depression.
The World Health Organization and Canadian guidelines recommend kids aged 6-17 have at least one hour of moderate to vigorous exercise per day. According to Statistics Canada, not even seven per cent of Canadian children meet this modest target.
The thinking behind banning games seems based on keeping kids safe but in so doing, we do more harm than good. Dr. Mark Tremblay, chief scientist at Active Healthy Kids Canada, has said: “It sends the wrong message that playing these unorganized games, or even some form of reasonably organized sports, is dangerous and generally speaking, that’s not true. The health benefits far exceed the risks associated with them.”
These are challenging times. Our desire to safeguard children sometimes blinds us from the harm we can unwittingly cause. Scrapes and spills may be the cost to pay for the joy and thrills of games. We need kids playing and exercising more, not less.