Let's Make Childhood Savage, Again

by Hans Rollman

23 February 2015

A growing movement says we ought to help our kids lead riskier lives with the intent of improving society.
cover art

Savage Park: A Meditation on Play, Space, and Risk for Americans Who Are Nervous, Distracted, and Afraid to Die

Amy Fusselman

(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
US: Jan 2015

Amy Fusselman thinks we ought to help our kids experience more risk.

She’s not the only one. A growing backlash against the safe and sanitized approach to childhood is building, and playing itself out in – where else? – the playgrounds of our cities.

Fusselman describes her new book Savage Park as “A meditation on play, space, and risk for Americans who are nervous, distracted, and afraid to die.” The sub-title gives away the crux of Fusselman’s argument: we need to be present more, play more, and be more willing to expose ourselves and our children to risk.

The book is centred around Fusselman’s experience at an adventure playground in Tokyo, Japan. On an extended visit there with her family, their host introduced them to Hanegi Playpark, where to her shock she discovered children were free to build fires, burn things, freely use shared tools like box cutters and hammers and saws, climb trees, and play about amid what at first resembled ruins more than recreation. 

Naturally, her children fell in love with the park – as did she. She remained obsessed with the adventure park and the broader ideas it represented, and later returned to Japan to spend a week shadowing Noriko, the park’s ‘head play worker’. The role of play workers in parks such as these is to monitor with minimal interference, letting children work things out for themselves (even if that means learning from their mistakes, or even if it leads to minor injuries) and when necessary facilitating opportunities for play (such as rigging up makeshift swings or providing paint to allow children to re-paint the playground themselves). Play workers, it turns out, do take their work very seriously, writing copious reflection notes every evening on what happened during the day, and sharing their reflections with other play workers during regular meetings. They debate avidly whether their actions and interventions promoted or stifled the vibe of free play.

The experience inspired Fusselman to reflect on how second-nature it had become for her, back home in America, to keep her children out of the way of anything that could remotely prove harmful to them. And it led her to question this approach, which is more than just a parenting philosophy; it’s also become hard-wired into how we construct and engage with space and objects in our society. “(I)t is largely fear and denial of space that we communicate to our children,” she reflects in her book. She comes to realize the importance of allowing children to experience risk and danger, as a vital part of developing their sense of self: “this full and complete allowance of a self, including all the ineptness, failure, and possibility of death, because it is understood that only with this allowance do we have the capacity to be great.”

Fusselman’s “meditation” takes the form of a protracted essay, a form with which she’s familiar. A persuasive and elegant writer who’s been published in The New York Times, Ms., and elsewhere, she also writes a parenting column, “Family Practice”, for McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. With Savage Park, she questions some of the basic tenets of American parenting practices, and the impact they’re having on today’s children.

“(B)abies and children, who quickly become young adults, do not learn how to take risks in space, something that ultimately makes them less safe in space, not more… we are not an island; we are in the world. There is no escaping it: we have been born, we are going to die.”

Fusselman weaves broader reflections on death (and what our treatment of death says about how we value life) into her book, and on our relationship to the space around us. The basic message is one of ‘be present’, but the exposition reveals how truly challenging this is in an urban environment; particularly in an environment where we’re more focused on avoiding risk and danger than we are on appreciating and understanding the space we inhabit and move through. A class with (in)famous wirewalker Philippe Petit (who illegally walked a tightrope between the World Trade Center towers in the ‘70s) helps her establish a greater sense of presence, acknowledging the complexity of respecting and engaging with inanimate objects around us as an extension of ourselves, and weaving in small rituals of acknowledgement and presence into our daily activities.

It’s all very interesting, but the strongest part of this extended essay is its focus on play – who plays, and how we play, and what role risk and danger play in, well, making play truly play. Scholars and researchers of play tend to focus on explaining the function of play, she writes. Yet doesn’t this miss the point entirely? Isn’t play the one activity that is supposed to be free of purpose and function? Isn’t that what defines it?

“Play is not something that we do; it is something that we are. It is the state of consciousness that we are born with, and it gradually diminishes in power as we age, until, as adults, we generally find that we are able to enter and exit this state with ease only if we have practiced… Play is ultimately less of a what and more of a how.”

Being playful and being present intersect: play isn’t something we do to achieve an outcome, “it is something that we are”. True play requires us to be present. And being present means acknowledging – not forestalling or even necessarily avoiding – the risks and dangers that our environment presents, for us or for our children.

“(D)o not deny the possibility that your child may be hurt beyond your ability to make her better, and, finally, do not do the opposite of denying the possibility, which is becoming obsessed with it. There has to be some middle ground… The idea that we – and our children – are never really ‘safe’ is hard to live with. But the good news is that we also don’t have to live with the opposite idea – that we are always ‘unsafe.’ Moving beyond the dichotomy of safe/unsafe, beyond I won’t die/I am dying, where are we? For most of us, most of the time, we are in a place where we are neither totally ‘safe’ nor ‘unsafe.’ We are in time, in space, we are living.”

A place to sit and rest, Hanegi playpark, Tokyo

A place to sit and rest, Hanegi playpark, Tokyo (Photo from Savage Park

Making Play Adventurous

The first adventure playground, Fusselman tells us, was constructed by an architect in Copenhagen in 1943. After the war, their popularity spread across Europe, and in Britain they were championed by Lady Allen of Hurtwood, who is today widely associated with the concept. (See “Lady Allen – the godmother of play – speaks” on Rethinking Childhood.com, 24 June 2013) But they never caught on the same way in the US, she says. While playgrounds were important there in the late 1800s and early 1900s (in part because automobiles took over the public roads children used to play in, requiring the construction of alternative public spaces in which children could play without being hit by vehicles), the economic misery of the Depression saw funding for playgrounds cut. After the war middle class affluence saw families more interested in purchasing their own play equipment for their children, in their own private space. Playgrounds continued to exist, and serve various functions, but they didn’t assume as central a role in public consciousness as in other countries, suggests Fusselman.

“American playgrounds can’t look like Hanegi Playpark because Americans refuse to make peace with their own death and dying. This approach is built into the culture at the most profound levels, and the mostly unconscious indoctrination into this perspective begins very young.”

Adventure playgrounds do exist in the US, even if they are few. She describes one in Berkeley, and another one which opened more recently in New York City. She’s hopeful this represents a renewed interest in the possibilities and potential of play. Play, after all, is the most simple activity, but sometimes it’s the most difficult for our serious, belaboured, stressed-out population to open ourselves up to.

“To play, you do not need a particular object or game or even a playground; you need only an assent, a grateful and glad yes. Granting this yes, to and for ourselves, in every environment, even awful ones, is one of the most liberating things humans can do.”

Part of the problem, she suggests, is that we associate play with childhood, bracketing off its possibility and importance for adults. She observes this in her own children: the frustration of her younger son that her older son cannot play with the same abandon because now he has to do homework. Indeed, she notes, instead of valuing and understanding play for its own sake, we often define play in relation to work. Work is what is important, and play is defined as not-work.

“We are here for only a short time; we are going to die. How will you live your life? is really the only important question there is, and playfully is one of the most courageous, most generous, and most fully human ways to answer this question.”

There’s an adventure playground a short walk from my apartment, in the middle of an inner-city park in downtown Toronto’s west end. Outside the haphazard jumble of ditches, pools, and building materials is posted an unusual sign: Anyone 12 and older must be accompanied by a child. It’s not tongue-in-cheek: there’s actually a park by-law restricting access to children under 12 years of age. Ostensibly, this is to protect the children and playgrounds from being overrun by teenagers; the park website talks about older kids being “too big and rowdy.” Yet maybe there’s another reason. Maybe 12 is the age when conventional society says the role of play in our lives ought to “gradually diminish”; the age at which children ought to start being trained to be obedient workers and consumers, instead. Indeed, by steering teenagers away from hill forts and sandpits, we don’t stop teenagers from playing; we simply steer them into game arcades and malls where they can play as long as they have the money to pay for it.

A Genealogy of Risk

Fusselman isn’t the only one concerned about the impact of North America’s safe, sanitized childhood. In an April 2014 feature article in The Atlantic, “The Overprotected Kid”, Hanna Rosin puts forth a similar argument, constructed around her study of the adventure playground called ‘The Land’ in North Wales. She attributes the post-WWII rise in adventure playgrounds to the aftermath of the war, when “Children who might grow up to fight wars were not shielded from danger; they were expected to meet it with assertiveness and bravado.” In today’s era of “affluent and middle-class parenting norms”, she says, the return to dangerous adventure playgrounds marks “an act of defiance”.

Rosin is also astonished at how quickly things changed in the space of a generation. “Actions that would have been considered paranoid in the ‘70s – walking third-graders to school, forbidding your kid to play ball in the street, going down the slide with your child in your lap – are now routine.” Not just routine – they’re considered good parenting. She cites a study conducted in the UK that revealed “that in 1971, 80 percent of third-graders walked to school alone. By 1990, that measure had dropped to 9 percent, and now it’s even lower.” She says the excuses parents give about the world no longer being as safe as it was are not, empirically, true: “all available evidence suggests that children have about the same (very slim) chance of being abducted by a stranger as they did a generation ago. Maybe the real question is, how did those fears come to have such a hold over us? And what have our children lost – and gained – as we’ve succumbed to them?”

Part of the impetus for change, she says, came from a consumer advocacy campaign in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s geared around playground reform in America. This followed the first successful multi-million dollar lawsuits filed by parents of injured children against the municipalities responsible for the playgrounds where they were injured. This sparked research into the range and numbers of child injuries and deaths on American playgrounds – data that probably hadn’t changed much over the years, but had never been publicized in dramatic fashion, either. Guidelines for playground safety were developed, insurance premiums for operators of playgrounds rose, and guidelines soon became enforceable regulations: “the cultural understanding of acceptable risk began to shift, such that any known risk became nearly synonymous with hazard.”

Things have now gone so far the other way that even some initial supporters of playground reform have questioned today’s extremes. Joe Frost, one key safety campaigner in the ‘80s, published a 2006 article cited by Rosin where he observes that “In the real world, life is filled with risks – financial, physical, emotional, social – and reasonable risks are essential for children’s healthy development.”

Growing numbers of researchers (Rosin cites some of them) now argue that it is in fact critically important for children to experience danger, thrill, and risk. Doing so helps children both learn to face their fears, as well as to develop the capacity to assess and manage risk for themselves.

Rosin argues that the shift to a risk-averse society hasn’t even led to significant benefits in preventing child injury and death on playgrounds. Rates for both have decreased since 1980, but only very slightly, she says. Similarly, she suggests the focus on making children fear and avoid strangers is also misplaced. While her essay asserts that stranger abduction is quite rare and rates have not significantly increased for that either, at the same time she notes abductions of children by family members have increased significantly, partly related to rising rates of divorce and separation. As families and neighbourhoods lose their traditional cohesion, she says, “It is perhaps natural that trust in general has eroded, and that parents have sought to control more closely what they can – most of all, their children.”

The shift in parenting norms has had other side-effects that are only now being recognized. Children have ceased forming active communities among their peers free of adult supervision – the “neighbourhood gangs” of children that pepper early and mid-20th century literature. Some suggest this has an effect on their ability as adults to engage in community building and interact in healthy ways with their peers. As well, children who experience constant adult supervision grow up feeling that it’s normal to constantly be under surveillance. When a parent never lets a child out of their sight, it becomes normalized for the child to accept the fact they are always being watched and their behaviour observed and controlled.

The broader cultural dangers posed by the loss of “free child culture” are gradually being acknowledged, says Rosin, pointing to initiatives in the UK to ease up on regulation of playgrounds and to encourage children to pursue active, independent – and even risky – behaviour.

Will America Follow?

When Fusselman says Hanegi Playpark could not exist in the US, she’s probably right. Debra Harrell of South Carolina would probably agree. In a well-publicized case last year, she was arrested by police after allowing her nine-year old daughter to go to the park unsupervised. (”Debra Harrell back on her job at McDonald’s, lawyer says”, by Nia-Malika Henderson, The Washington Post, 24 July 2014)

Lenore Skenazy is another parent who stirred up controversy by writing about how she allowed her nine-year old son to ride the New York subway by himself. (”Why I Let My 9-Year-Old Ride the Subway Alone” , The New York Sun, 1 April 2008)  She’s made something of a career out of it: she now hosts a television program and runs the Free Range Kids website, advocating her particular parenting philosophy and greater independence for children.

So there is a growing movement for accepting greater independence – and risk – for children in North America. But it’s not without controversy. In a 2012 article on the debate, Canadian journalist Sarah Boesveld described the “formation of the International School Grounds Alliance, a global voice to address the ‘increasingly sedentary and risk-averse generation of children disconnected from nature.’” But countering that group’s enthusiasm was Safe Kids Canada, arguing that pleasure, fun and exploration can still happen without putting children at risk. (”Return of risk: The growing movement to let kids play like kids”, National Post, 4 May 2012)

Well, whichever way the wind winds up blowing, it won’t move mountains overnight.

Fusselman’s essay covers a lot of ground, and at times it enters quite abstract terrain. Then again, what might appear at first to be non-linearity could also be interpreted as a form of play. After all, isn’t writing ultimately about the inter-play of thoughts, words and ideas? Fusselman’s background is in art journalism, and there’s an artistic element to her ‘meditation’, expressed in her sometimes lofty evocation of abstract concepts. But there’s also a certain gravity to her ideas, and to the notion that our risk averse society could be doing as much disservice to our children as it is protecting them.

Or do we maybe have it all wrong? It’s true that some researchers warn that sheltering children such that they’re unable to learn how to forge social relationships on their own, results in a lack of empathy. But could it also be a reflection of a very different phenomenon – that perhaps we feel greater empathy for our children than did previous generations? In a society of smaller families that often consist of only one or two children, could it be that parents have begun to endow those children’s lives with greater value? Could that be what lies behind parents’ hesitation to put their children in danger’s way? Could it reflect greater empathy – not less?

Could it be that previous generations of parents could not afford to become so emotionally attached and invested in their children because of the greater ease and likelihood of losing those children (to disease, poverty, war)? Did a conscious fear of loss – and the subsequent emotional pain—prevent the same level of emotional attachment that we are seeing today? Fusselman is right in addressing death in her essay, because there is an indelible relationship between how we engage with loss and death, and how we approach life.

There are material realities to consider too, however. Rosin attributes a “greater respect for toughness” to working-class parents, who don’t go to the extremes of their upper and middle class neighbours. But might that simply be because they don’t have the economic wherewithal to over-protect quite as dramatically? Without the luxury of being able to have one or two parents at home and out of the workforce, or to hire nannies and put children into daycare and all the rest of it? After all, Debra Harrell – the South Carolina mother arrested for letting her child play in a park unsupervised – was a McDonalds employee who said she couldn’t afford daycare.

Whatever the causes and implications of America’s risk-averse parenting trends, it’s clear that there’s a conversation our society needs to have, and works like Savage Park offer an important and thoughtful way to raise that conversation. Fusselman’s ‘meditation on play, space, and risk’ is a provocative, thoughtful and engaging read that forces us to re-evaluate not so much who we are, as where we are, and how. And more importantly: where and how we want to be.

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