As Sarah Miller recently lampooned over at The New Yorker, parents today are bombarded with “long-form think pieces about parenting” that purport to show how some new studies have finally, after all these years, proven the correct way to raise a child — and how the rest of us have it all wrong. So much for Dr. Spock’s “Trust yourself. You know more than you think you do.”
The latest addition to that genre is Hanna Rosin’s “The Overprotected Kid” in The Atlantic, which argues that the next generation is on the path to ruin thanks to, of all things, safe playground equipment. Apparently, common sense improvements like replacing the asphalt on playgrounds with grass or rubber can somehow be connected to “depression, narcissism, and a decline in empathy,” as well as “college-age kids taking psychiatric medication,” and even “a fear of growing up,” culminating in the next generation’s “inability to think for themselves.” (What’s next? “Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria!”). The primary solution to this societal collapse, we are told, is “a new kind of playground.”
We might as well start our analysis with this “new kind of playground.” The idea of “adventure playgrounds,” which Rosin traces back to Lady Marjory Allen, a British landscape architect from the 1940s (though it’s my understanding she got the idea from C. Th. Sørensen in Denmark), is to “encourage a ‘free and permissive atmosphere’ with as little adult supervision as possible,” which will in turn enable kids to “face what to them seem like ‘really dangerous risks’ and then conquer them alone.” Rosin’s exemplar for a “new kind of playground” is The Land in England (“The Land”), a playground made up of commercial refuse in which children sit on broken chairs, jump on “filthy” mattresses, start trashcan fires, and toss around discarded wooden pallets.
In the most general sense, it’s obvious that children need to learn independence and to be responsible for themselves. And surely it’s good for kids to try their hand at designing and building new structures from the tools and materials available. (If you have young kids and lots of cardboard boxes everywhere thanks to Amazon Prime, check out Makedo.)
Yet, if the key is to have “as little adult supervision as possible,” then “The Land” quite plainly does not fit the bill: “The park is staffed by professionally trained ‘playworkers,’ who keep a close eye on the kids but don’t intervene all that much. … [A] playworker is always nearby, watching for impending accidents.” I’m glad to hear that, but if we take at face value all of the arguments in “The Overprotected Kid” about the terrible harm inflicted upon children by supervision and safe environments, then The Land is worse than your typical playground, because it fails to let kids actually exercise independence (and actually suffer the consequences) and it creates a false sense of security even in truly dangerous situations.
Let’s step back to the core of the supposed problem: what, really, is wrong with safer playgrounds? According to Rosin, playgrounds today are harmful to children’s development because of their absence of needlessly dangerous components like asphalt (something not even found at adventure playgrounds) and exposed openings on climbing structures, a “problem” that stems from — what else? — lawsuits. As Rosin writes:
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, Debra, a few steps behind him. The structure, installed three years earlier, 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 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.
The Nelsons’ was one of a number of lawsuits of that era that fueled a backlash against potentially dangerous playground equipment. … In January 1985, the Chicago Park District settled the suit with the Nelsons. Frank Nelson was guaranteed a minimum of $9.5 million.
The Atlantic article doesn’t mention it, but, as the plaintiff’s lawyers charged, the industry standard back in the late 1970s already limited slides of that size to children 12 years and older, and the manufacturer subsequently added an additional railing to prevent children from falling out — a change that obviously could have been made before Frank’s brain injury. (Similarly left out was how the actual settlement was structured around an annuity: as reported at the time, it wasn’t a lump sum payment, but rather benefits of $9,583 a month, with a 4 to 5 percent cost of living adjustment each year.)
Let’s put circumstances surrounding Frank Nelson’s accident on the “tornado slide” to the “Overprotected Kid” test: if the point is to make children “face what to them seem like ‘really dangerous risks’ and then conquer them alone,” then what benefit, really, is there to having a child of any age climb a 12 foot slide on asphalt that’s missing a fall protection rail? Nothing there will “seem like” any more danger to the child than a modern day slide; the distinction between asphalt and rubber surfacing will be completely lost on them, and they certainly won’t see the purpose of the additional railing. Presumably they don’t think they’re going to fall; by definition, no one expects an accident, or else they would avoid it. Is the trivial, likely non-existent “benefit” of an asphalt surface worth the far greater risk of permanent injury?
Such is the problem at the core of Rosin’s “The Overprotected Kid.” It’s easy to wave the banner of self-reliance and independence and to claim that anything less than the Spartan agoge is inadequate, but, once you start looking at the details, what, really, are the benefits of cheap slides, of hard playground surfaces, or of playing with a broken, disgusting wooden pallet as compared to a hundred other safer building blocks? (I sure hope those pallets have been treated; beyond the splinter and laceration issues, a substantial number of wooden pallets are infected with E. Coli and Listeria from the raw food items they are inevitably used to transport at some point in the logistics cycle. I guess nothing teaches children about danger like having a deadly stomach bacteria.)
Rosin tries to make the case that “safer” playgrounds aren’t really safer, and fails miserably:
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 1980 was 156,000, or one visit per 1,452 Americans. In 2012, it was 271,475, or one per 1,156 Americans. The number of deaths hasn’t changed much either. From 2001 through 2008, the Consumer Product Safety Commission reported 100 deaths associated with playground equipment—an average of 13 a year, or 10 fewer than were reported in 1980.
Let’s first unravel her spin on the number of deaths: in 1980 there were 68.3 million children in the US; in 2008, there were 74.1 million. The population of children grew 10% in that time but there were half as many accidental deaths per year associated with playgrounds — and this is billed as not “a tremendous difference?” But perhaps the worse part of this statistic is the “frequency of emergency-room visits,” as if a kid going to the hospital for benign hyperventilation (to rule out a suspected heart condition) was the same as a kid with a brain injury undergoing emergency surgery. As I noted two years ago on KevinMD, emergency department visits involving children have been skyrocketing, and that’s been a reason for celebration by the CDC and others, because it shows increased awareness of the need for proper medical evaluation after a variety of “minor” injuries. It by no means shows playgrounds aren’t safer. Rather, all it shows is that parents are now taking their children to the emergency room for far more injuries that are confirmed to be minor.
Whatever one thinks about “overprotecting” children — there’s no denying that parenting norms are more protective than in the past, the question is if we’re now “over” protecting or if they were “under” protecting — there is hardly a case to be made that the problem was created by removing, or can be fixed by replacing, needlessly unsafe playground equipment. Consider this huge logical leap in “The Overprotected Kid:”
In his essay, Gray highlights the work of Kyung-Hee Kim, an educational psychologist at the College of William and Mary and the author of the 2011 paper “The Creativity Crisis.” Kim has analyzed results from the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking and found that American children’s scores have declined steadily across the past decade or more. The data show that 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, Kim noted, has been in the measure of “elaboration,” or the ability to take an idea and expand on it in a novel way.
If that sounds familiar, it’s because, back in 2011, The Atlantic was talking about “the creativity crisis,” but then it was all about “STEM” education, and how STEM’s “biggest flaw is that it continues to shine a bright light on all things engineering while relegating art and design to a dusty corner.” Truth is, whatever one thinks of Kim’s research using the Torrance Tests — you can find her general thoughts on the tests and their limits here — there’s nothing tying that research to insufficiently dangerous playgrounds. Kim herself seems to have a different view, chalking up some of the problem to “Drugs, television, emails, Facebook and other websites, video games, newspapers, and other activities become addictions that distract from the achievement of creative products,” and so recommending moderation in their use.
But why should Rosin let common sense get in the way? The absence of any evidence connecting safe playgrounds to the claimed problems of our era didn’t stop The Atlantic from climbing to the very top of the slippery slope. Rosin quotes a reader of the Chicago Tribune at the time of Frank Nelson’s settlement: “Do accidents happen anymore? … Swings hit 1-year-old children in the head, I’m sure with dire consequences in some instances. Do we eliminate swings?” Rosin says that statement “proved to be musings from a dying age,” rather than what it was: hyperbole. Thirty years later, every playground I’ve taken my kids to does, indeed, have swings. We even have a swing set in our backyard.
However, Rosin hit the nail on the head, even if she didn’t realize it. She quotes Joe Frost, a playground consultant: “In the real world, life is filled with risks—financial, physical, emotional, social—and reasonable risks are essential for children’s healthy development.” Indeed. We don’t need to manufacture a risk for children to teach them that the world has risks; the world will show them plenty of risks on its own.