Suzanne Fields

Playground-safety guidelines quickly became stringent requirements. Tiny accidents the size of acorns were magnified into terrifying oaks.

Environmental engineers replaced grass, dirt and tree houses with rubber flooring and woodchips, and the pleasures of childish surprise vanished into technological dullness. "Rough and tumble" became "safe and secure."

A charming documentary movie based on the work of Roger Hart, a British researcher, about elementary school children in a New England town in 1972, shows them playing merrily without adult supervision, exploring the flora and fauna of a small nearby forest and creating secret houses and forts.

When these children grew up and became parents 32 years later, Hart revisited them and found they were afraid to let their children play alone even in their own backyards. A fence replaced the forest. They wouldn't allow him to interview their kids without a parent to chaperone.

Etan Patz, a 6-year-old in Brooklyn, N.Y., disappeared while walking alone to his school bus and became the famous poster child for National Missing Children's Day. Missing children appeared on milk cartons, and parents wouldn't let their kids out of their sight, even though crimes of abduction are rare, and continue to be as rare as ever. The pendulum swings.

Although fear of children being harmed may not result in more fearful children, as researchers claim, playgrounds are a lot less adventuresome. Some children get used to being watched instead of developing their own compasses for self-direction, and certain studies suggest that millennials suffer from a "play deficit" leading to depression and narcissism.

There's a class divide here. Many children of working-class parents crave the time and attention that middle-class children get from overprotective parents.

Even when both parents work, they add supervisory hours on weekends, overscheduling their children with "play dates" they can supervise. Children of less-prosperous parents are less aggressive and engage in more spontaneous play. No play dates for them.

There are learned studies to support both approaches, but maybe it's the right time to summon Aristotle and discover that middle way. We could build better playgrounds where children -- and the parents who watch them -- can enjoy a few thrills of risk and reasonable hazard. It should be fun.


Suzanne Fields

Suzanne Fields is currently working on a book that will revisit John Milton's 'Paradise Lost.'

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