Children are wired to take risks in play

Few children today get the opportunity to escape the watchful eye of hovering parents.

Few children today get the opportunity to escape the watchful eye of hovering parents.


Imagine letting your 13-year-old son ride pillion on a motorbike before launching himself off the back in an attempt to intercept a racing calf.

Or a mother looking out the window to see that same son "bonnet surfing" through the paddocks, pulled along by a slightly older brother driving a ute.

Or allowing said sons to go out spotlighting at night to shoot feral animals.

Would a parent permit their offspring to do this today? It's almost inconceivable, but that's how country boys were raised 40 years ago.

My husband Garry was that 13-year-old growing up on a farm in central NSW.

"We were wild boys but not bad boys," he says cheerfully. "We got lots of scrapes and bruises; Mum was always patching us up but we had the best time."

Garry says he was riding a motor bike from the age of seven and weekends were spent driving tractors on the farm with his father.

But there was still plenty of time to strip down and rebuild cars and trucks, swim in irrigation channels, catch yabbies in the dam and set up flying foxes in the trees.

It was a rich and varied childhood that he still recalls with great fondness.

My own youth was spent in Fiji - not quite as wild as his but still free of constant parental supervision.

We walked to and from school - about two kilometres - until we were old enough to ride bikes; we climbed mango trees and built cubby houses, we swung on ropes before plunging into rivers, we bounced along in the back of my father's ute, we swam, got sunburnt and poured cold tea over seared skin, we imagined life as a circus troupe.

It was a very special childhood - the sort of environment many childhood experts are saying is sorely lacking in Australian society today.

Parents, they claim, have become overprotective, resulting in a generation of scaredy cats who are averse to taking risks. Their children struggle to make decisions and take responsibility for their actions.

In 2011, Ellen Sandseter, a professor of early-childhood education in Norway, published her findings after observing children as they played in increasingly sterile playgrounds over a decade.

She concluded that children have a sensory need to taste danger and excitement; that, in fact, they are born with the instinct to take risks in play because historically learning to negotiate risk was crucial to survival.

She identifies six types of risky play: exploring heights, handling dangerous goods, being near dangerous elements (eg, fire), rough-and-tumble play, speed and exploring on one's own.

The last one, Sandseter says, is the most important for children, adding: "When they are left alone and can take full responsibility for their actions, and the consequences of their decisions, it's a thrilling experience."

But few children today get the opportunity to escape the watchful eye of hovering parents.

After school, they are ferried to an unceasing round of extracurricular activities; in the holidays they're entertained at the movies, attend soccer camps or installed in front of the alternative babysitter, the television.

They are rarely encouraged to go outside the family compound to simply meander, explore and play because of the perceived risk of being injured or abducted.

Yet the reality is that children have as many accidents as they ever did and they are more at risk of being hurt by a family member than a stranger.

Back off, helicopter parents. It's time to let your children fly alone and unassisted so they can rediscover the joy of playtime and learn some important survival skills along the way.