March 28, 2014

Underplayed: Why Risky Play Is Not the Issue

Dad and SonLast Friday, Rush Limbaugh assigned his listeners homework. He asked them to read Hanna Rosin's Atlantic piece, "The Overprotected Kid," and then to call his show and tell him what they thought of it. Invariably, audience members dialed in and lamented the decline of an era when American parents gave their kids the freedom to skin their knees, sprain their ankles, and return home at dark for supper.

Whether or not you agree that today's affluent, "helicopter parents" are over-supervising their kids' playtime, Hanna Rosin's piece was not intended to address the challenges of the one in five American kids living in poverty. For these young people, the operative question is not whether their play is over- or under-chaperoned. Rather, it's how can we, collectively, ensure that they have safe places and regular opportunities to play at all?

"The Overprotected Kid" describes today's middle-class parents as paranoid and afraid to leave their children alone because of perceived dangers. But in many communities where kids in poverty grow up, the dangers are all too real. For these kids, the primary goal should not be to introduce more danger, but rather to make sure they get the support and attention of caring adults that they need to thrive.

This is why KaBOOM! and Walt Disney Parks and Resorts have launched the America's Most Playful Family contest, which showcases families that are finding creative ways to make play a part of their everyday lives. We have received submissions from an extraordinarily diverse cross-section of American life, from the family who can't afford a karate lesson but serves up a dance party with dinner, to parents who hand their kids a soccer ball instead of an iPad. For these families, play is not a destination, but rather a way of life. We need to make it easier for all families to play actively together—on the city sidewalk, at the bus stop, in the neighborhood park, in the school yard, on the front stoop and even in the living room. And that won't happen without families, schools, communities, and cities getting involved.

Like Rosin, we agree that "reasonable" risks are essential for a child's healthy development. We are fans of so-called "dangerous" playgrounds, ourselves. But the risks that kids face when adults don't provide them with safe opportunities to play are far from reasonable—and this is what we really need to be talking about.

Today's kids play less than any generation before them, and rates of childhood obesity, ADHD, and toxic stress have skyrocketed as a result. Now is the time to change the conversation. Play matters. Without it, no child can reach her full potential.

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