Would you let your kids play with saws, hammers, old tires, and building scraps, completely unsupervised and out of your immediate reach? That’s what many parents are doing at play:groundNYC on Governors Island in New York, as well as around the world, in increasingly popular kids’ parks known as adventure playgrounds.
Closely resembling junkyards, adventure playgrounds, conceived by Danish landscape architect C. Th. Sørensen and first opened in Emdrup, Denmark in 1943, were created so “children could create and shape, dream and imagine a reality.” From there, the adventure playground concept gained popularity, leading to the establishment of more across the globe. There are presently about 1,000 adventure playgrounds worldwide, from Europe to Japan to the United States, with more popping up in recent years.
So what makes this helicopter parents’ worst nightmare so special?
Kids are — GASP! — encouraged to use their imaginations to build and explore without their overprotective, suffocating parents hovering about their every move, something many experts agree is an important part of child development.
According to Montana State University, helicopter parenting, a parenting trend that has increased in regularity in recent decades, is “detrimental to the mental health and well being of young adults.” A recent study, “Helping or Hovering? The Effects of Helicopter Parenting on College Students’ Well-Being,” notes:
Parental involvement is related to many positive child outcomes, but if not developmentally appropriate, it can be associated with higher levels of child anxiety and depression. Some studies have found that college students of over-controlling parents report feeling less satisfied with family life and have lower levels of psychological well-being. Students who reported having over-controlling parents reported significantly higher levels of depression and less satisfaction with life. Furthermore, the negative effects of helicopter parenting on college students’ well-being were largely explained by the perceived violation of students’ basic psychological needs for autonomy and competence.
While helicopter parenting is often the love child of good intentions and an unwavering desire to control all things, it’s clearly doing more harm than good.
Empowering Parents, a website devoted to helping parents with child behavior issues, instead recommends parents let go of the anxiety and let children engage in “normal ‘risks’ [children] would take at [their] age level” and “allow [them] to feel discomfort or pain.” The site adds, “It’s part of growing up. Don’t prevent [them] from struggling or rescue [them] from life’s hardships. Kids can’t learn if their parents are always doing it for them.”
And this is exactly the kind of opportunity play:groundNYC and other adventure playgrounds of its kind are attempting to offer children and their parents.
While even I, a self-proclaimed “free range parent,” initially found the idea of letting kids play with potentially dangerous materials alone a bit startling, it only took me a few seconds to realize this is precisely the kind of autonomy our kids today need.
Although the United States is currently home to only 8 adventure playgrounds, this number is up from a measly 2 just a decade ago, a sign that adventure playgrounds are rapidly gaining ground — and parental approval — nationwide.
So look out and let go, helicopter parents. An adventure playground is likely headed to a ‘hood near you.