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The Playground is Dangerous, But the Soccer Field Isn't?

Risk aversion does not necessarily drive parenting.

We’ve seen a flurry of opinions suggesting that parents today do not let their kids take risks. We riff elegantly on the disproportionate fear of injury and abduction that keep kids away from swing sets and monkey bars and neighborhood streets. Pundits suggest extreme measures to counter this purported epidemic of parental overprotectiveness, such as signing kids up for the controlled danger of a junkyard playground.

But are parents really averse to exposing their kids to risk? It depends on the activity. Concussion in youth football and soccer is not infrequent, and can have serious consequences. Cheerleading can lead to devastating injuries. And yet, in the face of these well-documented risks, we are in no rush to discourage or block participation, and we’ve moved very slowly to make these sports safer.

How do we make sense of these apparent contradictions? My view is that what often looks like an aversion to risk on the part of parents is simply a lack of appreciation of the benefit. Parents may be inclined to put kids in bubble wrap to avoid miniscule risks when they don’t believe there’s any upside to a particular activity. Conversely, they’ll expose kids to big risks when they see the possibility of a substantial return.

Take the playground example. An illuminating study published in Pediatrics a few years back reported that while parents of toddlers expressed concern about physical risk on the playground, they also objected to play time because it detracted from the academic learning that they thought should be taking place. So is it really fear of injury that makes parents want kids to stay inside and spend all their time mastering their ABCs and 123s—or is it the devaluation of play? If we replaced the swing set with a soccer field and an expert coaching staff, how many parents would worry about the risk of injury, and for that matter complain about taking time away from “real learning”?

Rather than chiding parents for being overprotective and egging them on to let their kids court the perilous, it might be more effective to shed light on the very real virtues of the activities that parents are avoiding. For example, we’ve known for many decades that young children experience essential learning through hands-on “playful learning.” New research, such as the work reviewed in Raising Can-Do Kids, continues to expand our understanding of the profound value of experiential, sensory-driven exploration as the foundation for critical thinking and problem-solving skills. That’s the reason to support play as part of any early childhood education curriculum, including time on a sufficiently challenging and age-graded playground in which risk is minimized.

Taking this approach may also brighten the spotlight on those bigger risks that can be found in youth sports. Recent efforts are revealing what drives risk for concussion in soccer – collisions are a primary factor, though heading the ball is also of concern – and similar approaches would inform our efforts to make sports safer for kids, or put another way, actually bring the risks into sharper focus for parents.

Reframing conversations to include considerations of risks and benefits of many childhood activities may help parents make more informed choices and bring the right kind of balance back to kids’ lives. Most importantly, children will learn how to seek out opportunities and develop the skills to best manage the potential downsides that come with them. These are lessons that will reverberate when they get out into the world and need to navigate an uncertain future in which knowing how to take calculated risks may be not only advantageous but essential.

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