How Protective Parents Imperil Kids at the Playground

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Taking Risks on Playground Usually Good for Kids

Risky play is the process by which children slowly confront these fears as their maturity and physical skill level advances. Upon conquering the new feat, the child is left with an exciting, positive feeling which replaces their former fears. When a child's playground consists of only supersafe play areas or if their parent is overprotective, they do not get to experience these small victories -- and that may ultimately leave them with anxiety that is inappropriate for their age and physical skill level.

"Playgrounds are, in many ways, a microcosm of a child's world," says Mark A. Reinecke, chair of psychology and child development at Northwestern University in Illinois. "The lessons learned there reverberate through their lives."

He says a child can come away from play with very different impressions based on what kind of experience they are allowed to have. "I have the capacity to master my world, a sense of efficacy and competence or, conversely, that I can't manage it."

And when parents are overly concerned with safety, the child will usually pick up on it and they may even become afraid of the playground.

"If the parent appears anxious or fearful, the child will attend to these cues and respond accordingly," says Reinecke.

Imagination, creativity and the ability to get along with others are also traits that form during play time away from adults.

"We know that children need some unsupervised time outdoors to develop their own capacities for make-believe play, and cooperation with their peers," says Dr. Jacqueline Olds, associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Mass. "All of this is interfered with when the parents feel that there must be an adult scrutinizing at all times."

When Should We Intervene in Play?

Dr. Gary Smith, director of the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, says there is no need to choose between a stimulating playground and a safe one.

He says that most playground injuries -- 67 percent of them to be exact, according to the CPSC report -- are from falls. So interventions should focus on limiting heights and adding soft surfaces for landing.

"We know that they will eventually fail when they try to reach a little further or jump a little higher," says Smith. "Failure is normal and children should learn to develop resilience. However, they should not have to pay the price of a broken bone or traumatic brain injury when they fail."

But before you go measuring how high your monkey bars reach, experts say, finding the right balance between supervision and freedom is the ultimate goal.

"All parents want to protect their child, physically and emotionally," says Reinecke. "This needs to be balanced with providing the child with a secure base, a sense that they can explore their world with confidence, knowing that a parent or caregiver is there if needed."

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