Don't wrap up childhood in too much cotton wool

Surely there can be no sweeter sound than the laughter of children enthusiastically enjoying a playground.

Whoops of delight hang in the air of crisp autumn afternoons as gleeful youngsters whoosh down purpose-built slippery dips.

But what happens when those squeals turn to an agonised cry. What happens when someone's precious loved one takes a tumble, gashes an arm on a rough edge or even breaks a limb? Suddenly, there's an army of experts gathered on the sidelines, quick to condemn the playground designers, and perhaps even start legal action looking to apportion blame.

Increasingly over the past couple of decades, Australia has moved into a risk averse environment, where every movement of a child is supervised, and any chance of harm is avoided at all costs.

Playgrounds are designed around reducing the risk of injury, which is, of course hard to argue against. But in this desire to protect, there is a danger of over-protection. If the elimination of hazards means the elimination of all risk, where does that leave us? We may have entered the era of the cotton-wool generation. And, as Paul Beigler discovers in today's Extra cover story, playing it safe can in fact do more harm than good.

Over the past few decades the threat of litigation has led to a situation where playgrounds have become boring and sterile. Where children are not engaged. And, perhaps most importantly, where their opportunity to learn about risk and reward has also been eliminated, along with those dodgy monkey bars and badly designed swings.

According to Biegler, a Belgian study last year found youngsters given a three-month crash course in doing risky stuff, such as climbing and jumping from crate to crate, were better able to detect and handle risk.

Another study, done by Macquarie University,  found parents who adopt ‘‘challenging parenting behaviour’’ – pushing their offspring to take risks rather than eliminating risk – were raising less anxious kids.

So clearly, there is some benefit to exposing children to some risk. To letting them learn about how to take a chance, and how to weigh up dangers and steer a safe course of action.

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The Ian Potter Children’s Wild Play Garden in Centennial Park, opened last October, features a bridge with no rails. A few decades ago this would have been considered normal. But in today's environment, this is seen as being cutting edge. The park's executive director Kim Ellis said it is ‘‘a place where kids can get muddy and dirty and climb and fall’’.

This approach incorporates the latest standards for playground equipment and surfacing, released in August 2017, which in reaction to earlier changes, incorporate a need to assess ‘‘good’’ risk.

Of course no-one wants to see a child get hurt because of bad design or poor maintenance. But allowing children to teach themselves how to navigate hazards has been proven to build resilience and maturity.

Sometimes, as hard as it sounds, it's better to let them approach a jump and make up their own mind. Take the leap of faith.

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