I was neither Huck Finn nor Robinson Crusoe. That’s just how life was in the ’70s in a NSW country town. My parents hadn’t read Dr Spock, nor were they radical libertarians. My father was a bank manager and, I imagine, one of the more risk-averse members of the community. Free-range parenting was at least another generation down the road.
My wife remembers playing alone in the hills near her home. Often, the children would be left at home alone for the day. Once, when her cousins were visiting, play degenerated into a war of the sexes and every window in the family home was broken by the time her mother returned.
And yet, like virtually every other parent in Australia, we hold our children tighter than we were held. We don’t bind our daughters’ feet but proscribe their movements and continually warn them of risks and consequences; we plan, organise and facilitate their activities rather than letting them roam free in either rural or urban jungles.
At home, at school and at every point between, children’s lives are bound up in rules and control: mollycoddled and managed to a degree unimaginable only a couple of decades ago.Finally, it seems, more people are asking why. Why can’t kids be trusted to use technology without a licence? Why can’t they catch public transport on their own? Why can’t they climb trees? Why, for heaven’s sake, can’t they do cartwheels at lunchtime?
”Children are as safe as they’ve ever been in recorded history yet we still think there’s all these bad things that can happen to them and the more we hold them tight to our chest the less skills they develop in being able to defend themselves later in life,” says David Eager, the chairman of the playground committee of Standards Australia.
A line always has to be drawn about acceptable and appropriate risks. I was never allowed to take a rifle to school. My daughters can’t either. But, at times, their playground lives have been severely proscribed. In kindergarten one daughter, who suffers only from an over-abundance of enthusiasm and a delight of physical activity, was banned from running by a Kafka-esque knot. Kindy kids are not allowed to play on the grass; no one may run on the asphalt.
Where’s the evidence that running on asphalt is dangerous, asks Eager. After all, hundreds of netball games are played every weekend on – you guessed it – asphalt. Eager believes kids can take plenty of rough and tumble. Why would you ban handstands, cartwheels and somersaults, as Drummoyne Public did this week? Australian standards permit a fall of half a metre from a piece of equipment onto concrete, says Eager. ”So doing handstands is perfectly legal in any playground, so I don’t know where they came up with this rule,” he says.
”It’s just that somebody’s got the notion that it’s dangerous because they could fall over. Yes, they can, but they could do lots of other more dangerous things. I think people need to have a long, cool look at childhood development. People say they’ll fall on their head and they’ll break their spine but that’s very unlikely. They’ll fall on their head and they’ll bruise their head but they won’t kill themselves.
”They’ve got to learn peripheral vision and spatial awareness and how are they going to learn that skill if they never fail in life, they never learn. In an ideal world what we want is for them to build a bunch of smarts. They build skills through making a few mistakes.
”If you take it right back to when they start to walk, kids try and stand up and fall over a thousand times and eventually they learn to walk and then run. But what if we said, ‘that’s dangerous, they’ve fallen over, better not let them try and stand up’?”
Perhaps this should be called the risk premium. Not an extra slug for the right to take a risk, but a pay-off having allowed children to do so. And not just to take the risk but to be allowed to fail.
Failing a bit can be extremely productive and can protect children as they emerge into adulthood, says Ian Lillico, a former school principal and consultant in boys education.
”If we don’t allow kids to do anything that’s a bit dangerous, then, rather than keeping them safe and happy and with no skinned knees, the risks are delayed until they’re 17, 18, 19 and they can be fatal. It’s a terrible concern,” he says.
Many schools live in fear of both a minority of over-zealous parents, the Education Department or their administrators. There are slippery dips in parks with so little slip you have to virtually push children down them. Things that spin, that make young children giddy with excitement, are gone. In some playgrounds all that remains is the ground after the play equipment has been junked. Insurance risk and duty of care are waved in the face of boisterous activity. Perhaps they need to be waived instead; perhaps we need a duty to care not too much.
Swings are banned in NSW public schools and in many schools agile young kids are not allowed to use monkey bars until instructed in the art – mostly by older women. More than 80 per cent of primary teachers are women and, unsurprisingly, most middle-aged women are less likely to engage in, or condone, risk-taking behaviour than are young boys.
Lillico concedes there may be a covert gender war being waged. ”There’s no doubt the rules in our schools, the curriculum and the stupid NAPLAN tests assume we all learn the same and we don’t. Many more girls than boys are more sedate, they’re more passive learners, they’re more pencil-and-paper based,” he says.
”Our boys are very special and you don’t want them thinking of masculinity as a negative; they’ve got to be moving, they’ve got to be on monkey bars.
”It comes down to leadership and the people at the top need to be able to say that, within certain parameters, a bit of rough-and-tumble and risk-taking behaviour is OK. But they are always frightened of something very bad happening and of them being sued.”
Mothers are often the worst at playing safe, says Lillico. To wit the queues of 4WDs shuttling children about morning and afternoon instead of letting them walk home with their mates. And, when they get home, play – especially in Sydney – is likely to be pre-arranged and pre-programmed more than ever before.
But not all of them, says Susanne North. Her street in Clovelly has become a ”play street”.
”In the afternoon the children go out and play and in every house the doors are open and children are playing up and down the street until sunset,” she says. ”There’s a lot of traffic and sometimes they drive fast but the children understand they can’t cross the street without looking.”
There are trees with ropes hanging off, swings and, hopefully before the children grow up, the tree will be strong enough for a tree house.
North thinks our attitudes towards childhood are driven by our culture. ”Maybe Australia, being a ‘nanny-state’, has transferred this approach to parents: we become ‘nanny-parents’,” she says.
Schools buy in, too, worried about being made responsible and liable for anything that might happen to their students. ”The idea needs to be incorporated into the curriculum that recess and lunchtime is not just to eat but it is actually complementing what is happening in the classroom,” North says.
”I was born and bred in Germany and I notice that children in Europe are given much more freedom from a very early age. Even my children – who have spent a lot of time there – have noticed that and love going to Germany because of this. Kindergarten children ride their bikes to school, often unaccompanied. Every town has climbing parks to explore. They have bonfires and children are allowed to carry real flares.”