I just learned of this amazing school in Australia that allows children to go barefoot and climb trees, along the same lines of our TimberNook programming. Amazed and inspired that a school was bending the rules for the sake of the children, it got me thinking how fears often get in the way of healthy child development.
We all want the best for our children. We want to make sure they are safe, loved, and well taken care of. Rules and setting limits are an important part of learning what is right and wrong and keeping children safe from harm. However, where do we draw the line? Somehow we’ve gotten to the point where it is now interfering with their growing minds and bodies.
Fear can be an enemy. It clouds our judgment and makes us reactive instead of proactive. For instance, say the unspeakable happens: A child somewhere in the world gets seriously hurt. Next thing you know, this piece of equipment that has been around for decades is banned from all playgrounds or this classic activity is no longer allowed on school grounds all over the world. What used to be, “accidents happen” becomes, “this equipment or activity needs to be banned to protect our children.” Are we really protecting our children by reacting to our fear and internalizing this one incident?
Here is the truth: accidents will always happen. Always. No matter how much you try to protect children, we can’t predict and control everything. You can try. However, by restricting children’s movement, limiting their access to nature, and constantly telling children “no” with anything that offers any kind of risk, we are causing more harm in the long run. Severe accidents are extremely rare, but we tend to focus all our efforts on preventing these. Meanwhile, we are missing the big picture. Through loss of freedom for our children, we are affecting their health and normal development, which will have lasting effects on our society.
Here are just a few ways we’ve restricted children’s actions due to feelings of fear that are having a profound affect on their development:
1. Change in playground equipment (i.e., equipment closer to the ground, shortened swings, shortened slides, loss of merry-go-rounds, teeter-totters, and monkey bars) = less vestibular (balance) input to the brain (needed to support good balance, spatial awareness, emotional regulation, and improve attention). Children also need challenging playground equipment to gain new physical skills and grow strong bodies.
2. Restricting children’s actions (i.e., keeping them from climbing, playing tag, jumping off of things, spinning in circles, rolling down hills, getting dirty, going barefoot, and moving in general). All of these things are actually therapeutic for children and often things occupational therapists will encourage children to do in order to develop a healthy sensory system. By constantly saying “no” to these, we are working against sensory integration.
3. Less freedom from adults. Children need space – or at least have the perception of having time away from adults. We all need time to relax, de-stress from the day, get creative, to ponder life, create a balance, and find joy. Children especially need this time to become independent and capable.
We need to start providing environments (home, school, and community) that place great emphasis on child health and well-being. Environments that nurture, encourage, and inspire--with rules and limits that support child development, not work against it.
It is time to draw the line -
when the rules get in the way of development.