Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Letting kids fall

This post is an apology to my husband, StraightMan. The man who took our then just-able-to-walk toddler to the top of a rather steep slide at the elementary school that I had attended in northern NJ, and released her with the words: "Let's just see what happens."

Her eyes widened as her body gathered momentum and crossed the high untrespassed sanctity of space, hands touching the face of God, then landed on her diapered bottom in the wood chips spread across the ground. I rushed over to Beanie, who sat stunned, and checked for signs of damage. (There were none.) StraightMan, to my recollection, just laughed.

I admit it: I was a scold, and I still am, but less so. I have learned. At least a little bit. StraightMan insists that kids hurt themselves only when we are watching them play. It is true when Beanie or Bubbie has become bumped or bloodied, it is usually when StraightMan is standing right there, at an arm's length or so. Now, another parent might regard this as evidence of StraightMan's supervisory skills or lack thereof - I know I have - but who among us has not had kids fall down and bang into each other, etc. on our own watch?

Also, it turns out that StraightMan might have science on his side, as science writer John Tierney reports in the NYT today. It reports that there is a downside to making playgrounds too "safe," removing tall slides and climbers and so on:

“Climbing equipment needs to be high enough, or else it will be too boring in the long run,” Dr. Sandseter said. “Children approach thrills and risks in a progressive manner, and very few children would try to climb to the highest point for the first time they climb. The best thing is to let children encounter these challenges from an early age, and they will then progressively learn to master them through their play over the years.”

Sometimes, of course, their mastery fails, and falls are the common form of playground injury. But these rarely cause permanent damage, either physically or emotionally. While some psychologists — and many parents — have worried that a child who suffered a bad fall would develop a fear of heights, studies have shown the opposite pattern: A child who’s hurt in a fall before the age of 9 is less likely as a teenager to have a fear of heights.

By gradually exposing themselves to more and more dangers on the playground, children are using the same habituation techniques developed by therapists to help adults conquer phobias, according to Dr. Sandseter and a fellow psychologist, Leif Kennair, of the Norwegian University for Science and Technology.

There is joy and triumph on Bubbie's face as he comes careening down the tongue slide (which you ride with your legs straddling either side of the slide, not with your legs in front). It is not that he knows no fear. Possibly the slide would be not that exciting without a little bit of trepidation. Yet, he takes whatever fear he might have into his own hands and manages it with his own efforts.

These days, I work hard not to hover and to squash what I realize are my fears. I guess I should have spent a little more time on the monkey bars myself :)

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