Hey Kids! Get Away From That Playground!!

The headline on this USA Today story sums it up: Playgrounds: They’re safer but still can be dangerous.

As opposed to — what? Anything can be dangerous.  Nothing can be 100% safe. Yesterday a man walking through Central Park got hit by a falling branch and now he’s in a coma. Should we cordon off Central Park? Chop down  all the trees before another innocent victim gets hurt?

What’s just nauseating about this article, detailing the potential risk of every square inch of playground equipment,  is its complete lack of perspective. It points out, for instance, that thousands of kids get hurt on playgrounds every year, as if this were unconscionable. What about the  flip side? What happens when kids DON’T play outside? When they DON’T swing on a swing? What happens when they turn to jelly in front of their computers (like I’m doing now!)?

DEATH BY JOY?

And it’s not like there’s  been a sudden rash of children perishing on playgrounds. The fact is, we are worrying these days about what Spiked Online’s Nancy McDermott calls, “microsized risks.” Sure, there could be MORE wood chips under a swing to make it safer. There could always be more padding and safeguards and warnings and foam rubber. But stop for a minute and think: How unsafe is any swing to being with?  Swings are already pretty safe!

Sure, there might be some rotten chemicals in the paint or the wood chips or the mats on the playground, but how many kids are making a three course meal of these?

Sure, it might be better if we all lived wherever that sparkling glacier water comes from that they sell in fancy bottles. But since we don’t, do we really have to worry to the point where “experts” are warning kids not to snack at the playground, because the air there might not be 100% pure,  thanks to chemicals in the rubber pellets that were put  on the ground  to keep children safe from something else (falling). God forbid that tainted air gets on their organic grapes and kills them in 127 years? They should wait to eat at home where somehow the air is far more pure than outside?

WHAT WOULD MAKE THE SAFETY EXPERTS HAPPY?

What kind of world are we waiting for before we declare it safe to live in and enjoy? A world where the playgrounds are 100%  safe? (No running, skipping or frolicking, please.) Where the ground is 100% soft (no concrete, please!), but not made of wood chips (which have arsenic), or rubber chips (which may contain trace elements of toxins, even though we seem to ride around on rubber tires every day and you don’t hear a lot about THAT). Where the ground is not covered by those twin dangers actually cited by the article:  “dirt or grass”?

Playgrounds shouldn’t be built on GRASS??? That is what the article quotes a “safety commission” as concluding!

One of the experts quoted further says, “If you show me a playground, I can show you a playground that isn’t being maintained.”

In other words: NO PLAYGROUND is safe enough, ever. One wood chip outta place and your kid is playing at his peril.

THE BIG PICTURE

This is pretty much  our view of everything where kids are concerned now. No route to school is safe enough. No bus stop is safe enough. No toy or bottle or crib is safe enough. And no playground is safe enough, even if the kid is there with mom, dad and the National Guard. And they brought along a big swatch of shag carpeting to play on.

“Microsize risks” look giant to us because we are shrunken with fear. Until we see them for what they are, we will fear  everything:  trees, air, grass and dirt.

Not to mention swings. — Lenore

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A Funny Video about Online Predators? Yup!

So I just  read yet another article about how to protect your child from all the perverts sliming around on social media, like MySpace and Facebook.

Hooey.

I’m all for protecting kids from crime and creeps, but the advice had it wrong. Both the Crimes Against Children Research Center and Harvard’s  Berkman Center for Internet and Society  studied what happens to kids on line. Both concluded that when kids are posting photos and chatting with each other and even giving out personal info — the big “no no” everyone warns about — they are not putting themselves at risk!

As David Finkelhor, head of the Crimes Against Children Research Center said: Predators are no more likely to go through page after page of Facebook than they are to open the phone book to try to find a date. It is, he said, a “low-yield” proposition and they know it.

So where DO they go?  To chat rooms devoted to sex. The “red light” district of the Internet. And generally the young people they meet there, eager to chat with strangers about sex, are the same ones hanging out in kind of sketchy places with sketchy people in the real world. And generally these young folk have been through some tough times already (abuse, neglect) and are looking for love in all the wrong places.  

Here’s an article from Mommymythbuster talking about the Harvard study on Internet predators. And here’s a great New York Times article where the author, David Pogue, set out to write about all the  horrors kids face on line…then realized that’s not what’s happening:

Sure, there are dangers. But they’re hugely overhyped by the media. The tales of pedophiles luring children out of their homes are like plane crashes: they happen extremely rarely, but when they do, they make headlines everywhere. The Internet is just another facet of socialization for the new generation; as always, common sense and a level head are the best safeguards.

Love that guy. Anyway, upon reading all this info AND seeing a scary public service ad warning parents of perverts ever ready to pounce on the Internet, some funny folks at Columbia Teachers College decided to make a video putting the danger into perspective. Predators and puppetry? Perfect together. Click to watch! (If I could figure out how to embed the video right here, I would. But I just spent half an hour trying and have no clue. Sorry!) — Lenore

The Media Show: Online Predators?

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Going Free-Range…After an Abduction

Hi Readers: Here’s a note of transformation from a mom of five who is going Free-Range after three decades of fear. Her oldest is 32, youngest is 10.

Thank you, thank you. I went from “You have got to be kidding — she let her kid take the subway?” to “This makes so much sense and I totally have to change my mindset.” I am still reading the book, and I can feel truth replacing fear in my whole perception of life around me.

I am in that rare statistic of knowing someone well who was  abducted and murdered. A child, and abducted by a stranger no less. A stranger who came across state lines for the purpose of abducting a child. Make no mistake, I had the fear before that. Ever since Adam Walsh was abducted and murdered. My oldest was two at the time, and I became certain that if I did not watch her at all times, the same would happen to her.  My children have been all spread out in age, and now I am 51 years old with my oldest being 32, and youngest being 10. I have five children and four grandchildren. I have raised my children in fear. I called it caution. When the Adam Walsh scenerio became real in my own town – in my own small church, right in the middle of vacation bible school – it closed the lid tight to any chance of letting my children out of my sight.

 Your book was the miracle that lifted that lid, just enough to get a glimpse of the world I had been raised in. The “olden days,” when parents let their kids be kids and didn’t fear for their lives every second they were out of sight.

Even when I think of scenerios that don’t have an evil stranger around every corner, other cautions come to mind. Like, our country roads don’t have shoulders for riding bikes. Like, traffic lights in our area are awful, and don’t take pedistrian traffic into consideration at all. So many cars are turning right on red that when the light changes, well – cars are ALWAYS coming. So I admit, I am in a bit of a dilema. But I’ll figure it out.

We have an outdoor ice-cream stand only about 3/10 of a mile from our house. That is going to be my first baby step for my sons who are 10 and 12. They will walk there and get ice-cream, and walk home. Before the summer is out, I’d like to allow them to ride their bikes about a mile away and go fishing by themselves.
 
My eighteen year old son really pushed the envelope with me this summer. He planned a trip. He had worked, and paid for it all by himself. He is trying to promote his music, and wanted to play in coffee houses and for church youth groups. He planned it with a friend. He planned who they’d stay with (friends or relatives), what cities they’d go to, and that they’d travel by bus (yes, and have a layover in Washington DC that was basically an all nighter). He made all of the arrangements for the buses, and for the flight home at the end.
 
I am so, so proud of him. Would I have “let him” do it if he had given me a chance to say no? Not on your life. I’d have suggested many things first – don’t ask me what. Maybe I’d have even driven him to “a few places” to help him “get it out of his system.”
 
I had told him “WASHINGTON DC!!!!!??? That’s like, the most dangerous city – please don’t stay there for 6 hours in a bus station.” He tried to reassure me that the bus station was probably “nice-ish,” being that it was a big city, and that some of the places he’d already been were “probably much worse.” He told his sister by texting while there “Don’t tell Mom, but this place is really pretty scary.”
 
Maybe he wasn’t all that wise in some of the places he went and had his layovers. Your book came to me at the end of his trip, which lasted three weeks. As his trip went on, day by day, I began to realize that what he was learning was priceless. He was learning risk assessment, how to make arrangements, that sometimes bus stations are closed and you can’t get the ticket you generated on-line, but it works out because you can get it at the next station and they let you on the bus anyhow. He saw different places, from Brooklyn, NY to Oklahoma City, OK. He learned that if you sit in the grass in Oklahoma, you might get “chiggers.” He learned that he had to tag his guitar as fragile.
But the greatest thing he gained was confidence. He truly did this on his own, and it was huge. Our big kids who were raised in this fear need to Free-Range, too. I am so glad he pushed the envelope with me. But glad I was reading your book at the same time.
Finally, I homeschool my children, and that will not change. Much more than caution (though it served my caution-mindedness well), it is a choice I have made for various reasons.
Now I’ve told my youngest boys my plan – of letting them walk to the ice-cream place. Should have seen the looks on their faces. Priceless. They can’t wait.
 
Neither can I. — Deb Turner
  
And neither can I, Deb. Thank you for this letter. — Lenore

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Insane Overprotection at Day Care!

At the risk of wasting my, “What is this world coming to?” quota for life (I think we’re only issued about 7 million), WHAT IS THIS WORLD COMING TO? Look at this article in Tuesday’s Washington Post. It’s about a brand new device, normally used to secure NUCLEAR REACTORS now being used to secure a…pre-school.

The doors at Lola’s Place pre-k in Maryland are guarded by a “vascular recognition system.” A what?

“…a machine that uses infrared light to read a hand’s veins, 4 millimeters beneath the skin. Like fingerprints, vein patterns are unique, and the computer installed at Lola’s Place will unlock the doors only for individuals it recognizes. Strangers must be buzzed inside by a staff member.

“It’s a technology that was developed to protect Asian financial centers, said Ayal Vogel, a vice president for sales at Tampa-based Identica, the manufacturer. Today, vein readers secure nuclear facilities, ports, power plants and sensitive data at universities…”

It’s not that I don’t want to see kids safe at preschool. It’s that if we all felt our kids needed this kind of protection, the world of childhood would be in virtual lockdown. Which is where it’s heading.

This view of the world — that kids are likely to be snatched out of pre-schools by criminal masterminds who laugh at a simply locked door — is (not to put too fine a point on it) paranoid-delusional-freakish. But as the article said, Lola’s Place is just the first pre-school to employ this system. The company is thinking about  New York, L.A. and D.C. next.

Then, perhaps, your town.

Then perhaps they’ll want to wire your house.

Then perhaps they’ll suggest you erect a nice, friendly,  fenced-in, razor wired, armed guard protected sandbox.

After all, “You can’t be too safe.”

 Or can you? — Lenore

Take the Free-Range Challenge! (It’s Almost Pathetically Easy)

Hey Free-Rangers!
Here’s a cool idea I got from the gal who runs the blog  Mommy Wizdom. She said: Why not post a  Free-Range Challenge and have folks write in to say how it went?

Sounds good to me! So here’s Free-Range Challenge #1,  based on a comment that just came into this site. A reader wrote:

I live in a typical residential subdivision with my seven-year-old son. I honestly cannot remember ever seeing any kids riding their bikes or walking around the neighborhood in the 3+ years we’ve been living here. Everyone stays on their own block or in their own cul-de-sac.

Not anymore. I’m making it my goal to change that sad fact. By the time I was seven, I had explored my entire neighborhood and the nearby woods and creek. I carried my own money and spent it on candy and trading cards at one of the stores up the street (and I walked there without my parents). And so did every other kid in my neighborhood!

So yesterday I decided it’s time for my son to start doing the same kinds of things I did when I was that age. When I got home from work, I told him he could ride his bike all the way around the block by himself. That may not seem like a big deal (because it’s not), but none of our neighbors had ever let their kids do that. So off he went. And guess what? He made it back! Same goes for the three subsequent trips he made.

I made it clear that he needs to tell us before he sets off on an adventure around the neighborhood, but no longer will he be constrained to our isolated cul-de-sac. With any luck it will rub off on the other parents in the neighborhood.

So Free-Range Challenge #1 is to do what that parent did: Teach your child how to ride his/her bike — safely! — just a little further than before. Not downtown to the strip club. Not over to the rickety bridge at night. Not to the local chapter of NAMBLA. (Don’t ask.) Just another block or so beyond the old limits, after you have duly checked out the nabe and the street crossings, etc. etc. etc. (I know — I’m sounding like a lawyer.)

In other words, just push your envelope ever so slightly and see if this feels good or nutty, and see how your kid feels about it, too. Because, after all, Free-Range Kids is not just dedicated to grrrr-ing about uptight busybodies and ridiculous regulations. (Satisfying though that is.) It’s also about making neighborhoods friendly and open again, and bringing back community, and giving kids something to do besides spending 6-plus hours a day staring at a screen, which is what the average 8 to 10-year-old now does. Getting kids out and about makes everyone happier and safer (and for what it’s worth: skinnier).

I know some of your kids are too young to bike, and some are so old they’re biking through ancient ruins in Indonesia. But for those of you who fit the bill — let us know what transpires! Your kids can write a comment too, of course. That would be great! Happy Free-Range trails! — Lenore
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Bike Riding Dad Shot in the Name of “Safety”

If you needed more proof that our society is a little wacky when it comes to kids and safety, get a load of this: A North Carolina off-duty fireman SHOT A DAD RIDING HIS BIKE WITH HIS THREE-YEAR-OLD IN A BIKE SEAT because the fireman thought the road was too busy for this kind of fun. He said he found the situation “unsafe.”

Guess in a way he was right about that. Here’s the story, sent in separately by a couple of Free-Range readers, Gyula Voros and Robert Freeman-Day,  who found it on BoingBoing.

You’ll be happy to hear that bike helmets — which Free-Range Kids endorses — saved the day: The bullet penetrated the dad’s helmet, but did not reach his skull.  (Not that that’s why we normally endorse helmets. But still…)  — Lenore

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More Outrage! English Schools Ban Ties For Fear of Choking

English school boys are suddenly being forced to switch from old-fashioned ties to clip-ons. What overactive overprotective notion is behind this development, sent in by reader Gregory Sutter? The BBC explains:  

In May the Schoolwear Association, the trade body for the school uniform industry, said 10 schools a week in the UK were switching, because of fears of ties getting caught in equipment or strangling pupils.

It’s about time someone put those fiendish neckties in their place! I just hope the authorities mandate adult supervision at tie-donning time, as kids could all too easily puncture their windpipes with the clip-on clips.

Come to think of it: Wouldn’t velcro ties would be safer?  — Lenore

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