A generation ago, sand and water play areas were standard in day care centers. Today, they are not. At the center I visited at only a few months ago, children were not allowed to play with wet sand, as they would get too dirty. This was not a high-end day care serving children of the rich and famous. Most of the families were getting some form of state aid to defray the costs of childcare.
At that center, there was a lovely hill in the playground. It was off-limits. The director told me that their insurance company did not want the children to run on it, as they might fall. There was a cement play tunnel, but it was demolished and removed – a child fell off the end. He was not hurt, did not even have a bruise, but the insurance company wanted it gone. There was a darling pair of little cement slides, barely three feet tall, sleek and smooth in their design. Holes were shaped from the cement in one side for climbing up. The other side was slightly scoop-shaped, for sliding down and not off the edge. The children loved those slides as pretend horses or make-believe spaceships. Those slides are gone now, too. You guessed it – the insurance company. This day care removed a small children’s climber. They had all the lower branches on the trees removed. After I threw out all the broken toys in the toy shed, there were none left. Yet this empty day care was licensed for 120 children. There was nothing there to do.
I suggest that it is not the environment that needs to be changed, but the parent, the teacher, or the guardian. Children must be allowed to play and get dirty. They must be allowed to bump themselves. We can comfort them, then let them learn how to pick themselves up and go on, wiser perhaps for the experience. Often serious injuries occur when the person responsible for them isn’t. A four-year-old boy drowned at the waterpark where my daughter worked, a terrible tragedy, for sure. But were his parents there? Were they protecting him from harm? No – they were in the bar having a drink (Yet they sued the water park). We must allow our children to explore, but if we’re watching them, we can remind them of the rules for safe exploring. “You may go down the slide, but you must sit on your bottom and face forward. You may not jump at the top of the slide.”
If you have a backyard, I urge you to fill it with “forbidden” play equipment: a sandbox, an outdoor water faucet, a swing, a slide, a place to ride a tricycle, and open-ended toys, the kind that require an imagination. Establish some ground rules for safety, and supervise younger children at all times. Invite your friends’ children to come over and play, while the adults watch and share coffee and conversation. I promise you, you will have a brighter, healthier, happier child – a more creative child, as a result.