British Columbia

The lost art of play: No resilience without risk, says researcher

Parents might want to shield their children from unpleasant experiences but experts say that playing it too safe is actually harmful.

Parents are too cautious, experts say, and it’s harming children

Playgrounds are incubators of important life lessons, says Michael Ungar. (CBC)

Call it a fact of life, but being teased or excluded on the playground is almost as hard to avoid as the occasional bruises and scraped knees of childhood.

Parents might want to shield their children from these unpleasant experiences, but experts say playing it too safe is actually harming children.

Michael Ungar, director of the Resilience Research Centre at Dalhousie University, said unhindered play is crucial for learning life skills and building resilience.

"The movement now is towards overprotective parenting, this constant need to avoid any stress on our children, but those playground interactions — especially unstructured ones — are an incubator for experiences that will make our kids more ready for life," Ungar said.

Ungar is the father of five children through a blended family and knows well the parental instinct of wanting to step in. But instead, he said, children need to be left to their own devices to sort out squabbles.

"I know we want to jump in the moment our children are being sidelined or picked on in anyway," he said.

"Standing back and coaching them on how to solve their own problems, and then pushing them gently back out into the world, is a good experience for them."

That doesn't mean ignoring ongoing or targeted bullying, Ungar added, but the occasional playground disagreement is normal and kids need to be allowed to learn social skills on the swing set.

Letting children lead

In the West Vancouver school district, the concept of using play to teach children social emotional skills has taken off. At West Bay Elementary, older students are paired with younger ones on the playground in a peer-buddy program.

"Our Grade 4 students, who look after the kindergartners, are told to stand on the side and watch for children who may be on their own and get them involved in play activities," said Judy Duncan, principal of the school.

If children start bickering, Duncan said, it's up to the older students to step in and help smooth over the issue — no adults needed.

At West Bay Elementary School, children are taught to get along with each other in a peer-buddy program and play-based learning is part of the curriculum. (West Bay Elementary School)

Ungar said that type of child-led solution is key for development, even if it's difficult at times.

"We don't want our children to experience completely blessed childhoods that are free of challenges," he said.

"That playground experience, where they are having to make up their own rules and figure out their own games, is actually a pretty good opportunity to learn the skills they are going to need later in life."

'Fear is really at the heart of this'

Those lifelong skills don't just come from standing up to a bully; sometimes, it can mean jumping high and falling down.

Mariana Brussoni, an investigator with the B.C Injury Research and Prevention Unit at the B.C. Children's Hospital, said children need to be allowed to engage in risky play in order to learn where the boundaries are.

"Adults are stepping in a lot more and just pre-emptively shutting things down — 'get down, too high, be careful' — and so what that does is it doesn't allow kids to figure out for themselves what are they capable of," Brussoni said.

The root of the problem, she said, is that parents are afraid something might happen to their children.

"Fear is really at the heart of this," she said. "Sometimes, parents' perception of what the danger zone is and what the danger zone actually is might be different."

She has researched childhood injuries for more than two decades and said serious childhood injuries from play are much less likely than parents seem to think.

"The biggest issue is not the children but the parents," she said.

"Parents' fears get transmitted to kids. Are you, as a parent, pushing those fears on your child and that's what is making them afraid to try and engage in things?"

The lost art of play

The story is part of a series called The Lost Art of Play that explores how play is changing and why this loss matters.

The five-part radio series, which airs on radio from July 17 to 21, is produced by Clare Hennig, this year's recipient of Langara College's Read-Mercer Fellowship.

Tune into On The Coast on 88.1 FM or 690 AM, weekdays from 3 to 6 p.m., to hear the series.