Keeping kids indoors doesn't make them safer

Keep the kids' boredom at bay these school holidays with your choice of events around Australia.
Keep the kids' boredom at bay these school holidays with your choice of events around Australia. 

Could over-protectiveness of our children actually be leading to more injuries? The curious survey results suggesting that taking risks may be safer than we think.

Today’s parents have been accused of overprotecting, overindulging and overscheduling - in extreme cases limiting the time their children spend exploring their own backyard for fear of injury. What is surprising is that according to UK data, this has not corresponded with a reduction in the number of children presenting to emergency departments. Despite the fact that the number of outdoor accidents has fallen, the total number of injuries has remained almost the same.

The British survey found that injuries sustained indoors, such as RSI were on the rise whereas those picked up outdoors like accidents on roller skates decreased.

Disturbingly, the effects of spending too much time on the couch, playing games or interacting with other digital devices also has long-term consequences, with chiropractors now seeing the effects of prolonged use in the form of spinal deformities in children as young as 10.

But, it is not just outdoor, free-range play or semi-structured activities like riding bikes and skateboards that parents are imposing restrictions on. Organized sports participation rates are also linked with both the parents’ and children’s fear of injury. Research shows that parental perception of the risk of injury at age six was negatively associated with children’s involvement in physical activity at age nine.

Maggie Dent, a parenting expert and mother of four boys puts the change in parenting attitudes over the last generation down to two things: the proliferation of confusing information regarding the best way to parent a child, and the influence of marketing messages that tap into the parents’ guilt and fear, and pump up the involvement in indoor activities (‘Educational’ apps and toys anyone?).

The perception that these alternatives are ‘safer’ is interfering with children’s inbuilt “explorer button” to interact with the real world both at the mind level and body level, she explains.

“The natural environment is what makes our kids’ postures strong, their sensory processing strong and their ability to integrate fore and back-ground vision and sounds and all of these incredible things that don’t tend to happen [when not exposed to the outdoors]. It is later when learning difficulties [crop up] that are really weird and non-specific ones that we can relate back to that.”

In her book, Real Kids in an Unreal World, Dent explores research linking problems like ADHD and Dyslexia with an underdeveloped cerebellum. This part of the brain, responsible for motor control, is developed with activities enjoyed outdoors like spinning, tumbling and rolling, she explains.

These activities and many more like, ball games, are even better enjoyed with other kids, however the decline in neighbourhood play also means reduced opportunity for social interaction with the kids on the street or the park.

Even parents that do make the conscious effort to take their kids to the park are not fully benefiting from the range of physical skills playground equipment used to hone.

Monkey bars and jungle gyms are no longer present, old tyre swings are banned and there are now padded surfaces in most playgrounds and counterintuitive as it may seem, experts think that these ‘safer’ playgrounds may actually increase injuries.

Dent attributes some of these injuries to the fact that children now have underdeveloped physical strength.

“They haven’t hung out off monkey bars or trees or off swings. When you move your body weight, it is profoundly important to get that shoulder girdle and that wrist strong and it doesn’t happen on your couch,” she says.

The consequences of such fear in sports participation and injuries at a young age are now being observed in adolescents, says Dent. “When they reach adolescence, they don’t have this capacity to manage the bumps and bruises. And bumps and bruises as a result of your choice as a child would make you not necessarily make that choice again,” she says, explaining that if given the opportunity to experience such resilience-building injuries, troubled teens would be better equipped today to manage the ups and downs of life.

Tim Gill, a child play expert and author of the book No Fear: Growing up in a Risk Averse Society agrees. “Parents aren’t making the distinction between a learning injury and a catastrophic injury. Parents are becoming prey to the idea that any injury is bad. And I think that’s a mistake.”

“Children don’t get the chance to learn their own limits as much as they used to. Parents are controlling their children so much that they don’t get the chance to develop their risk thermostat.”

A few suggestions from the experts to help develop this thermostat and reinstate the broken arm or ankle sprain (and not RSI) as an important part of growing up:

  • Children have a natural appetite for experience, if you don’t provide them the opportunity to expend and explore in the outdoor environment, they will do so indoors, picking up insidious injuries like falls off furniture. 
  • Enlist the help of grandparents and your own memories on when you sustained an injury while playing outside and how you went about managing it and what you learnt from it. 
  • Avoid involving very young children (especially if they’re in the early primary years) in strenuous organized sports and practice sessions. They’re often too tired from school and this may predispose them to pick up an injury.
  • Avoid “going with the crowd” and enrol children in activities everybody else seems to be enjoying, give them a taste of what is to be expected first and then assess their interest and abilities in that particular activity.