I was taken recently with the motivations of a German playground equipment company. The firm, Richter Spielgerate, designs places to climb and clamber where there is every chance that a child might come away with a nasty bruise or scrape, possibly even a broken bone. This is no reckless enterprise. It is a calibrated effort to get kids to test themselves and use good judgment.
One of the firm’s more simple jungle gyms invites the intrepid child to shimmy up a log at a steep angle and perhaps make his or her way across a connector some distance off the ground. The kid who prefers terra firma presumably can also have fun but the option take more risk is there for those who want it.
The company puts a premium on the idea of self-determination for children. “Only when they are able to act in a self-determining way can they develop into mature, socially competent individuals with strong characters. In a world full of rules, standards and prohibitions, is it especially difficult for children to forge their own way and explore their personal strengths and weaknesses,” the company writes on its website.
I came across this in an interview on the CBC program ‘Q’ where the Richter Spielgerate sales rep said their playgrounds avoid the worst risks; there are no places for a head to be caught or a scarf to get tangled or a finger to be severed. “There should be no chance that a child couldn’t breath or that they would lose something that wouldn’t grow back,” he said.
But lesser injuries, should they occur, would be OK. These playgrounds are built with the idea that kids need to test themselves and they they have a pretty good understanding of what they can manage and what they should avoid.
It would be easy to dismiss this as some Teutonic version of the school of hard knocks but intuitively, most of us are ready to believe that being over-protective hardly comes without risks itself. It is hard to develop confidence in ourselves if we have always been told to rely on the judgment of others. Clearly, we sense there must be a balance point.
Just as clearly, we are talking about more than just jungle gyms. Whether as a parent, a teacher or a boss, sometimes the hardest task is allowing someone to stumble. We have an obligation to prevent catastrophes, but not prat falls. The test of our wisdom lies in knowing the difference between the two.