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July 24th, 2011

unixronin: Rodin's Thinker (Thinker)
Sunday, July 24th, 2011 01:48 pm

Or, why safety is harming us and our kids:  A New York Times article asks whether playgrounds can be too safe.

Well, come on, really?  Of course they can.  Duh.  We as we grow, master physical skills by overcoming obstacles, just as we master mental skills by solving problems.  If you are never given the opportunity to attempt those obstacles, you will never develop the skills to overcome them.  Period.

As the article points out, this goes beyond the physical, too.

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.

I think there's another aspect here, though, that the researchers failed to consider.  And that's the societal aspect.

Wait, you say, there's a societal aspect to over-safe playgrounds?

Well, yes, there is.  There are several, in fact.  The general undesirability of a society composed of frightened, underconfident, risk-averse people who shy away from physical exercise because it's scary is obvious.  But there's a non-obvious one.

We are creatures of adrenaline.  We practise risk compensation.  When a behavior is made safer, we indulge in riskier behaviors.  We are hardwired to seek out a certain level of adrenaline stimulation.

So what happens when all the risk, all the challenge, is taken out of a playground?

Well, there's still a couple of ways you can get an adrenaline rush out of it.  You could find a smaller kid to beat up.  Or if the equipment is too boring to actually play on, well, maybe you could see if you can figure out a way to break it.  After all, it's no good for playing on.  What do you have to lose?  And there's the adrenaline rush from knowing you might get caught.  Reward!

This is the great unasked question.  Do overly-safe, sanitized, cotton-wool-padded playgrounds actually encourage kids to be bullies and vandals?