Can playgrounds designed as junkyards save the next generation?

Imagine a playground made up of old tires, discarded furniture, and a plastic boat sitting in a muddy creek. A junkyard? An accident? No — a consciously-created opportunity for kids to be kids, and not the overprotected God-forbid-you-scrape-your-knee products of our helicopter-parenting culture. The playground is called The Land, and it’s in North Wales. It’s the subject of a must-read article in The Atlantic, “The Overprotected Kid.”

Here’s a picture of The Land in action…



In the article, author Hannah Rosin visits The Land with her 5-year-old son, Dylan (pictured above) and then uses the experience as a springboard to a fascinating survey of what’s happened to playgrounds – and to kids – as our culture has become more and more dominated by a desire to shield kids from all risks. The outcome isn’t pretty. The actual number of cases of injury hasn’t budged since 30 years ago, but the effect on the kids has been devastating. Here’s an excerpt:

In an essay called “The Play Deficit,” Peter Gray, the Boston College psychologist, chronicles the fallout from the loss of the old childhood culture, and it’s a familiar list of the usual ills attributed to Millennials: depression, narcissism, and a decline in empathy. In the past decade, the percentage of college-age kids taking psychiatric medication has spiked, according to a 2012 study by the American College Counseling Association. Practicing psychologists have written (in this magazine and others) about the unique identity crisis this generation faces—a fear of growing up and, in the words of Brooke Donatone, a New York–based therapist, an inability “to think for themselves.”

In his essay, Gray highlights the work of Kyung-Hee Kim, an educational psychologist at the College of William and Mary and the author of the 2011 paper “The Creativity Crisis.” Kim has analyzed results from the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking and found that American children’s scores have declined steadily across the past decade or more. The data show that children have become:

less emotionally expressive, less energetic, less talkative and verbally expressive, less humorous, less imaginative, less unconventional, less lively and passionate, less perceptive, less apt to connect seemingly irrelevant things, less synthesizing, and less likely to see things from a different angle.

The largest drop, Kim noted, has been in the measure of “elaboration,” or the ability to take an idea and expand on it in a novel way.

The stereotypes about Millennials have alarmed researchers and parents enough that they’ve started pushing back against the culture of parental control. Many recent parenting books have called for a retreat, among them Duct Tape Parenting, Baby Knows Best, and the upcoming The Kids Will Be Fine. In her excellent new book, All Joy and No Fun, Jennifer Senior takes the route that parents are making themselves miserable by believing they always have to maximize their children’s happiness and success.

In the U.K., the safety paranoia is easing up. The British equivalent of the Consumer Product Safety Commission recently released a statement saying it “wants to make sure that mistaken health and safety concerns do not create sterile play environments that lack challenge and so prevent children from expanding their learning and stretching their abilities.” When I was in the U.K., Tim Gill, the author of No Fear, took me to a newly built London playground that reminded me of the old days, with long, fast slides down a rocky hill, high drops from a climbing rock, and few fenced-in areas. Meanwhile, the Welsh government has explicitly adopted a strategy to encourage active independent play, rather than book learning, among young children, paving the way for a handful of adventure playgrounds like the Land and other play initiatives.

Here’s a link to the entire article. I strongly recommend it: The Overprotected Kid – The Atlantic.


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. Vice President, Zoomer Media Ltd. . Author of "The New Old" . 30 years experience in marketing communications, advertising, media . Speaker, writer, commentator on the revolution in aging and how to market to Boomers and seniors