Running Scared

Safety concerns and academic pressures impinge upon kids' sense of spontaneity

| March/April 2001

It’s not just adults who are forgetting how to play. Overprotective parents, school officials, and government officials are gradually building a safety net that threatens to trap children in a worrisome tangle of mediated activity.

From highly structured 'socialized' recess in schools to the stultifying rules enforced on public beaches to the rise of commercial playgrounds nationwide, kids are finding ever fewer opportunities for spontaneous fun.

More than 40 percent of school districts across the country have dropped recess or are considering it, according to a recent report in U.S. News & World Report. Though the plan is hardly favored by kids, school officials have abandoned such 'nonessential' activities in an effort to boost academic achievement. As Sheila Flaxman writes in Instructor magazine, '[Some] believe that play takes valuable time away from more important activities and allows children to hide in a fantasy world instead of facing the realities of the here and now.' In a nod to the need for physical exercise, school districts in Philadel-phia and elsewhere have established highly structured activities on the playground. These efforts ignore the need for independent play and time away from adult supervision.

Beyond the academic issues,

a sort of public paranoia about child safety is limiting what kids can do with their free time. Take the public beaches in Minneapolis, which bills itself as the City of Lakes. Children are not allowed to use inflatable toys or mattresses or snorkels or fins, or even throw a beach ball around. There are no rafts to swim to and jump from, and absolutely no horseplay.

'Right now we have 11 city beaches that are totally safe, totally boring, and mostly empty,' writes Lynnell Mickelsen in the community newspaper Southwest Journal.