Why you should care

Because childhood play will shape the adult you become. 

A boy the size of a large stuffed animal precariously perches on a ledge 15 feet in the air, his arms outstretched like he’s at the hull of the Titanic. There’s not a parent in sight, and a fall to the knotted tree roots below would certainly mean a broken bone — maybe worse. What’s curious about this scene isn’t that a kid is one small misstep from falling to his fate; that happens everywhere. It’s that the minefield in which he’s playing is actually a children’s park, or, as some are calling it, an adventure playground.

The two-story-high contraption our little Jack Dawson has conquered is a massive elephant jungle gym made from bright yellow bamboo stalks with red cans for eyes and palm fronds for ears. This adventure playground happens to be in the Gambia, in West Africa, but big, colorful and intentionally risky playgrounds have begun dotting cityscapes from Moldova to Japan. They’ve had a harder time breaking into the States, where helicopter parenting and lawsuits still reign, but as a legion of NGOs, psychologists and parents have taken up arms against the assault on free play, even that may soon change. A little danger “allows [kids] to be creative and test their limits,” says Amy Wise, a 44-year-old mom of five who takes her kids to one of the few American adventure parks, in Berkeley.

These adventure playgrounds aren’t made with dinky silver swing sets or brown plastic slides. Take the giant, riotously colored dinosaur made from tires and dirt mounds in Guatemala. Or, in Thailand, the straw hut with a slide protruding from its roof, or the “undersea” tire tunnel in landlocked Uganda, which sits atop a bed of sand and is enclosed by murals of lapping blue water and purple octopus tentacles. The one in Berkeley gives kids nails and hammers to play with. These imaginative play spaces, which let kids pretend they are somewhere or someone else, are critical to childhood development, says Roger Hansen, a retired 70-year-old who has dedicated himself to building playgrounds around the world, including more than a dozen on Navajo Native American reservations.

We’ve gotten to this ridiculous point, where rules are so crazy that people are standing up and saying: You’ve got to be joking.

 

American cities and schools, once bastions of play, have been toning down the fun since the peak of playground freedom in the 1960s and ’70s. So much so that playgrounds in the Western world have become boring. “No self-respecting 8- or 9-year-old would find them the slightest bit interesting,” says Tim Gill, author of No Fear: Growing Up in a Risk-Averse Society and the former director of the nonprofit Play England. Even things we once considered sacred, like merry-go-rounds and monkey bars, have gone the way of the big purple dinosaur. Helicopter parenting came about with the growing paranoia of “stranger danger,” higher expectations at school and fierce competition among parents. “We think that the goal of childhood is to create a résumé so they get into Harvard,” says Boston College professor Peter Gray, who wrote Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life.

But as a growing mound of evidence reveals that teenagers who miss out on childhood play have more mental health issues, while those exposed to early play have a 44 percent higher high school graduation rate, parents are loosening the death grip. Meanwhile, in less developed countries, parents are more concerned with the day-to-day, leaving their children to learn to fend for themselves at an early age. But parenting attitudes change as countries ascend the world ladder, says Gray. It’s a curious paradox: The more money parents accrue, the less freedom their children enjoy. Gray points to India as an example of a place where adults have become “obsessed” with high test scores at the expense of leisure.

One of the leading pro-fun advocates is a nonprofit based out of Australia called Playground Ideas. The organization came about when an Aussie teacher living in Thailand offered to help build a local playground, which eventually led to projects in other disparate communities. Realizing the power of well-orchestrated, unorganized play, the teacher, Marcus Veerman, eventually returned to his home country, where he coordinated with experts to design tool kits that any city, parent or school can source. Since 2010, the company has provided designs for 950 playgrounds in 72 countries — a third of those in just the last year. “We’ve gotten to this ridiculous point, where rules are so crazy that people are standing up and saying, ‘You’ve got to be joking,’” Veerman says.

But kids do get hurt. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, every year around 200,000 American kids go to the emergency room with playground injuries, close to half of which are severe. Upping the inherent danger, the outsiders building playgrounds abroad often don’t have to adhere to safety codes. And physical risks aside, there’s also the argument that focusing on schoolwork instead of playing tag will have the greater impact, which is especially relevant in poorer countries, where the kids may work or are playing catch-up with foreign students.

There’s also another glitch in the adventure-playground movement: Building all the bamboo elephants in the world won’t be enough for some parents to let go of the helm. Maybe they’re the ones who need to have some fun.

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