Julia Steiny: We’re on the Verge of Protecting Kids into Incompetence

Kids need play, games and sports to develop into well-prepared, confident adults, writes Julia Steiny — and too much regulation puts that at risk.



Last spring, officials at New York State’s Department of Health decided that it was high time to regulate children’s games that pose a “significant risk of injury.” And who can blame them?

Well, except that the games that sparked their regulatory urge were wiffleball, red rover, dodgeball, kickball, freeze tag, capture the flag, and tetherball.

Julia Steiny

Yep, those old standbys. Maybe by thrashing around a kid could chip a tooth, but freeze tag?

The officials wanted summer programs that were planning to let kids play these games to register as a legal “camp.” Official camps pay a $200 registration fee and must give proof that they have adequate medical staff, including a full-time, on-site nurse. Such a rule would effectively kill off the little acting or nature workshops that expected to take breaks by letting kids run off steam with a little red rover. Where would they get the money for a nurse?

Fortunately a State Senator halted the implementation of these regs by insisting they go to public hearing. Surely common sense would prevail.

We’re not keeping the children safe, we’re killing off the joys of childhood.

Oh, and it turns out that the only group that was vocally in support of the Health regulations were licensed camps. The new regs would give them a corner on red rover. Always follow the money.

I found this story among a wealth of “play-hater” tales collected by the terrific advocacy group KaBOOM!. The caption on the story’s picture reads, “It looks like an innocent game of kickball. But really, it’s an injury just waiting to happen…”

C’mon. Kids can get hurt falling off their shoes.

You would think that a Health Department would be far more frantic about the roaring crisis of childhood obesity. Every one of those traditional games uses big, gross-motor skills that burn calories. Could a bad bruise or a broken whatever be more serious than a lifetime of weight-related diabetes?

A collective national insanity has frightened parents into believing that all risk of injury can be scrubbed from childhood. My column two weeks ago discussed robbing kids of tree-climbing, banging wood together, and other managed risks that teach them balance, caution and how to recover from mistakes.

But this Heath Department story also brings up a second, related issue. Not only are parents, schools and lawyers trying to eliminate physical injury from childhood, many want to eliminate injured feelings as well. To do that means eliminating conflict. The black-listed games are all forms of play conflict. Conflict, play and otherwise, can lead to disappointment, sore losers and arguments.

If we scrub conflict out of the kids’ lives too, when will they learn about it?

Last year Darell Hammond, Chief Executive Officer of KaBOOM!, was asked for his thoughts on the incredible rise of social aggression among our young people. He writes, “One theory is that the effects of cyber-bullying on older kids are “trickling down” to the younger grades. Possibly, but I would make a different argument: The effects of the play deficit on younger kids are trickling up.”

We medicate attention deficit. But we’re okay with play deficit.

All mammals play fight. A kitten pounces endlessly – on her siblings, on some string – rehearsing for an adult confrontation with a real mouse or rival cat. Not all human playing is play conflict; there’s pretending and building. But even pretending together requires a lot of negotiation. So all playing can invite disputes and disagreements.

Games, though, bring the added tension of competition.

And put regular sports aside, since they’re hyper-organized and supervised by the adults. There’s nothing free-range about sports.

Still, even capture the flag includes the element of winning and losing.

Some parents want to spare their child the experience of losing. No matter who is the best at tetherball or which team wins, all kids should get the same trophy. God forbid a kid gets bummed and has to face that he’d better ramp up his game, or swallow disappointment gracefully.

It’s painful to watch a child lose. But it’s no favor to the kid to postpone that experience.

In KaBOOM!’s most recent annual report, their researchers state: “Children who don’t play don’t learn how to work in groups, share, negotiate, resolve conflicts, and advocate for themselves. In a long-term study comparing groups of students who got a chance to play during the school day and those that didn’t, children deprived of play had increased problems with social integration, including greater likelihood of felony arrests by young adulthood.”

There, that’s real conflict for you.

I sometimes agonize about the education my kids got in their public schools. But I have to say that the real-life, K-12 curriculum of learning and playing with a wildly diverse population not only gave them compassionate hearts, but taught them to take no guff from street kids. Now, when confronted with a bully, an unreasonable boss, a hard-sell salesman, they push back. They turned to adults for help when they needed to.

And I realize that not all kids have adults available to help on a standby basis. They should. We should spend resources assuring kids of an adult presence instead of regulating the life out of their lives.

Childhood is a great time to learn that conflict is a part of life. Deal with it.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at GoLocalProv.com. She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.

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