A lifetime ago I worked with an urban recreation department in a decidedly underprivileged part of town. Budgets were tight, but we made up for it with a sense of fun; still unbridled by an increasingly litigious world. It was an environment that made the Adventure Playground possible. The Adventure Playground wasn't a playground in any traditional sense. There were no swings, or slides and certainly none of the sanitized, prepackaged, plastic play structures that serve to destroy imagination in today’s parks. Nope. What we had was a vacant lot where we built a sturdy wooden stockade that was mildly reminiscent of the kind of fort that you used to see in the old Westerns.
Into that enclosed stockade, measuring about 50 metres square, we dumped scrap lumber and other building materials. Then we assembled a big box of hammers, saws, ropes, nails, screws, drills, screwdrivers and other assorted manual tools... and set the children loose.
Oh, we had a supervisor on duty; he even had a first aid kit. His main job was to make sure that no one killed themselves, but he did little or nothing to guide or limit the children’s play.
The results were astounding.
Within days of opening the Adventure Playground the neighbourhood kids had a great start on a kingdom of imagination that was breathtaking in its diversity. Structures clung to the stockade and inexorably grew from single-storey shacks to three storey high-rise clubhouses. There were spaceships, pirate ships, castles, forts and a lot of structures that simply defied categorization. The kids built ladders and slides, and all manner of climbing structures filled the space. The kids brought blankets and rags from home to act as makeshift rugs, and curtains and flags were fashioned to proclaim the sovereignty of the kids’ creations.
Oh sure, there were some accidents. Occasionally a structure would collapse amidst howls of laughter and surprise. Thumbs were occasionally hit with hammers and superficial scrapes and bruises were commonplace. But no one was ever seriously hurt and the kids had a blast.
Could the Adventure Playground exist today? I don't think so. The world has changed, and to my way of thinking, not for the better. Our instinct to protect our kids has morphed into an avalanche of fear for their wellbeing.
Some of my fondest memories of my own childhood revolve around activities that had a good chance of hurting me. Some were stupid (nailing the carefully aimed hose to the roof of our house so that it could better spray passers-by when turned on at street level comes to mind), but others were thrilling and educational. We learned from the doing. It made us smarter and stronger.
It’s why I suggest that we all just lighten up and let our kids try some things that might hurt them.
The trick is to prepare them for the risks and supervise them if necessary. Here are five potentially dangerous things that I suggest that you let your children try.
Timothy Collins is a freelance writer based in Victoria, B.C. He is a hands-on grandfather and really did nail the garden hose to the roof one time.
Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, June 2015.