I recently read an article about schools in Auckland that participated in a study about play at recess. Playground rules were relaxed and instead of static playground equipment, lumber and tires and sand pits were available for creative play. Running games and games that involved tackling were encouraged and skateboards were allowed on the playground. Surprisingly, the incidence of playground accidents went down, there was measurably less bullying, and children were more engaged in the classroom.
Free play is an important part of education. Children need to learn to take risks while at play and modify their behavior based on the results of those risks. I don’t think that in our litigious country we could eliminate safety rules, but we could look at alternative playgrounds that allow children to create their own play spaces. This type of playground is one possibility.
Another item that caught my attention was about wearing bicycle helmets in Amsterdam. They don’t do it. They have bike paths everywhere, and motorists are supposed to watch out for bicycles. The Netherlands has a very rigorous driving exam compared to that in the United States. It is common for a person to fail the first and sometimes second time he takes the test. With rigorous laws for driving and accessibility of bike paths, most people own and use bicycles. If they drive, they are very considerate of the riders. Yes, there are accidents and head injuries, but there are far fewer of them than in countries with a much lower percentage of bicyclers where helmet use is encouraged. The argument is that more people will ride, decreasing fuel consumption and generally raising the physical fitness of citizens, if they do not have to wear helmets. Helmet use can discourage people from bicycling.
As a mother, I wanted to swaddle my children in padding so that they would never be hurt, but that isn’t practical. You have to learn to let them take risks. From the second they learn to crawl, children are exploring their world in a way that you can’t completely control. They touch, taste and smell everything as well as looking and listening. Children are creative by nature and love to explore with all of their senses. I think we are doing them a disservice by protecting them from mistakes. Children learn to evaluate risks by taking risks. This can lead to better decisions as teens learning to drive or as adults making all kinds of decisions that involve risk assessment.