By Jennifer Wheelhouse and Georgie Nickell
The prospective parent looked at Jennifer Wheelhouse of Montessori Children’s House in Redmond with concern. “Is that safe?” she asked, and gestured to the new elementary playground. It was a beautiful day: sunny just a hint of a breeze. “I turned to look at the reality of my vision and smiled,” Wheelhouse recalled. Here are her thoughts about parenting today, and learning to let go (at least a little bit).
Since the 1990s schools have removed swing sets from school playground. There were accidents; I remember them myself, but not an epidemic. As a result, straight slides were removed, they picked up too much speed, and spiral slides became common. Metal, that got too hot in the summer sun, was replaced by heat-reflecting plastic and the term “helicopter parent” was introduced into our vocabulary.
There has been a lot of buzz lately about “free-range kids,” “free-range parenting,” and risk play. We can all remember playing in the spare lot until sundown, walking through the woods with the neighborhood kids, and taking a stroll to the corner store with our best friend. A lot of people say, “Those were the days … but it’s a lot different now.”
And it is different.
Children these days have learning challenges: emotional issues and heightened sensory awareness. ‘Back in the day,’ it was rare to hear about these issues. Some researches say that’s because we, as a society, became all too protective, and all too plastic.
Psychology Today reported on a study where animals were the thrill seekers. Researchers prohibited rats to play during “a critical phase in their development,” and separate from other rats. This proved to make the rats “emotionally crippled.” When finally placed in a common environment, the protected rats “overacted with fear and failed to adapt and explore surroundings,” unlike the other rats that were allowed to play.
Furthermore, these protected rats were shown to react inappropriately and with aggression. Psychology Today notes, “Such findings have contributed to the emotion regulation theory of play – the theory that one of play’s major functions is to teach young mammals how to regulate fear and anger.”
The same article notes that over the last 60 years there has been a “continuous, gradual but dramatic increase in childhood mental disorders, especially emotional disorders.” Experts then philosophize this is because of prohibited and protected play.
Another fear factor introduced into this generation of helicopter parents is the continuous need to be plugged in to the media. Are there more pedophiles today than 20 years ago? Or have the horrible stories been made more known, thanks to the ever-present media?
According to the Huffington Post story on the subject, “If there was a kidnapping or case of child abuse or child murder in one part of the country, those at a distance would never hear about it. But in our Internet-fueled world, we hear about the daily threats to our children’s lives, however distant or remote they are. It’s not surprising that many parents are terrified for their children’s safety.”
The advantage of boo boo’s
According to Psychology Today in an article about play, children climb trees to “scary heights” to get a bird’s eye view of the world…and they get a thrill out of the view (wouldn’t we all?). They ride skateboards at high speeds, swing too high and whiz down slides … just fast enough to “produce the thrill of almost, but not quite, losing control.”
When you let your child make their own mistakes, they learn from them. They discover limits and push boundaries. Their self-esteem is put on hyper-speed when they earn to do things themselves, on their own terms — it’s a rush.
There’s no doubt you feel different, now that you are the age that you are. You have life experience. You’ve had your heart broken. You’ve fallen and gotten back up. If all “the bad things” that happened to you never happened, you wouldn’t be the person you are. You wouldn’t have common sense and know what ‘feel right’ and what ‘feels wrong.’
Children allowed to take their own risks grow up to be better at risk assessment in real-life situations and tend to rebound better and take on new challenges without fear of failure.
At my school, we just completed construction of our elementary playground. It’s made of natural materials – downed trees make for balance beams, the three-story tree house features a bird’s eye view of our five-acre campus. Our tunnel, covered by large, natural river boulders, is hard to climb over; but it can be done.
Now, months since the playground’s opening, we’ve had no injuries and no parents have voice concerns. Children use the playground in new and unexpected ways every day. And they love it. Life experience begins on the playground.
It’s not easy to let your child walk home from school. It’s scary – for you. And you will feel an absolute moment of relief when you see your child come around the corner. But know, that your child just had a little adventure, and adventures are exciting because they’re a little bit scary.
Did You Know?
* Standard test scores of children and young adults show that five to eight times as many children have been diagnosed with anxiety and depression than 50 years ago. Researchers believe this is because of a decrease in a child’s freedom.
* You know when you are ready to take on a challenge. So does your child. When you pressure a child into doing something they don’t want — jumping off the high dive, zip lining or putting their head under water — what will come is trauma instead of triumph. Children are different, and that’s what makes them wonderful. A child is more likely to get an injury if they are pressured to do something because they are responding to pressure and not their own will.
* Psychologist Peter Gray, author of Free to Learn, says “when free to pursue their own interests through play, [children] will not only learn all they need to know, but will do so with energy and passion.” He goes on to surmise, “Children come into this world burning to learn, equipped with the curiosity, playfulness, and sociability to direct their own education. Yet we have squelched such instincts in a school model originally developed to indoctrinate, not to promote intellectual growth.”
With 14 years at Montessori Children’s House (MCH) in Redmond, Jennifer Wheelhouse founded the infant/toddler program and managed the expansion of the school. Jennifer’s “nature-inspired” vision for the school was the catalyst for introducing farm animals on campus and starting a hands-on garden for students. Under her direction, the school has grown from four classrooms to 11, and from 84 students to 160. Learn more about MCH at mchkids.com.
Georgie Nickell is a long time contributor to 425 magazine. The author of two previous novels, Georgie’s third book From the Bedroom to the Boardroom: What You Need to Say to Be Heard, a conversation with Maria Smith is being published by Archway Publishing, a Simon & Schuster company, this December. Visit georgienickell.com to learn more.