Anxiety has become an epidemic, now eclipsing depression as the most common health disorder, particularly among younger people. While several hypotheses exist which try to point blame for the increasingly common condition, Norwegian researchers have found that the overprotection of children may have something to do with it.

Think back to when you were a kid and things were different. Remember teeter totters bigger kids could use to make lighter ones go flying, or merry-go-rounds that spun at dizzying speeds, and swings that went so high you could lose your stomach? Well, those things largely don't exist anymore. Instead, many playgrounds feature soft rubber mulch and slides and climbers so low to the ground anyone would be hard-pressed to get a scratch or broken bone.

Yet according to a study published in Evolutionary Psychology, risky play--the kind where someone actually could get hurt--is good for kids. Researchers suggest that the fear kids experience when climbing at great heights, being near a cliff or handling a knife keeps them alert and careful and teaches them how to cope with potentially dangerous situations. And over time, mastering such scary situations has an "anti-phobic" effect which results in lower levels of anxiety overall.

The study outlines six categories of risky play:

  • Great heights, which could result in falling and includes climbing, jumping from still or flexible surfaces, balancing on high objects and hanging or swinging high off the ground
  • High speed, which could result in collision and includes doing things like swinging, sliding, running, biking, skating or skiing at an uncontrolled pace
  • Dangerous tools, including things like cutting tools or ropes which could strangle
  • Dangerous elements including cliffs, deep or icy water or fire
  • Rough-and-tumble activities including wrestling, play fighting or fencing with sticks
  • Disappearance/getting lost, which could result from exploring or playing alone

So, does allowing kids to participate in some of these kinds of risky play increase their chances of getting hurt? Yes, although typically injuries are minor. Essentially, researchers believe that the long-term benefits greatly outweigh the risks.

Citing this research, The Atlantic published a fascinating story about a parcel of land in North Wales which is designated as a place for kids to play, although it's more like a muddy junkyard and less like a playground. Adult supervision is conducted in the background and kids do things like light fires, knock over pallets and attempt to use a frayed rope swing to transverse a creek.

Sounds like the kind of place a kid could gain some confidence, doesn't it?

The next time you slice the carrots (so as to keep your seven-year-old from cutting off a finger), or disallow the poking of sticks into the fire pit (because ember-tipped wands can burn someone), recall what it felt like to be a kid left alone. Remember pulling yourself up into a tree and the feeling of your hands and feet clinging to branches so as to keep yourself from falling?

That's the stuff of self-assurance.

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Published on: Dec 9, 2017