The Fourth C of Good Copyediting
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Of course, when many families choose a suburban life, they make a clear-eyed choice: to sacrifice the adults' health and well-being (with a longer commute, fewer cultural attractions, etc.) for the children's well-being.
The suburbs are presumably built with children in mind -- with crime-free residential neighborhoods, backyards and cul-de-sacs to play in and better schools. But studies have shown that the new suburban realities may be affecting children's health as well.
An estimated 20 percent of school-age children are obese. And only 13 percent of children walk to school, compared with 66 percent in 1973. Sometimes even those playful, active creatures for whom the suburbs were made find themselves stranded like commuters on a long ride to an unhealthy adulthood.
“In most highly developed countries,” she says, “children are not allowed to roam and range the way they did when I was younger. Every species requires this range behaviour, where you go further and further from the supervision of the parent. That doesn’t happen much any more. Kids are programmed from the time they wake up in the morning to the time they go to bed. They’re in classes or after-school programmes; there aren’t the vacant lots where they can go and build a fort or have their own space. These no longer exist in most urban areas or people feel it’s too unsafe for their children to be somewhere unsupervised. This has changed the quality of childhood.”
The new mollycoddling can damage children’s health, she says. “Obesity, asthma and attention deficit disorder are all environmentally related. Kids are not moving and exploring, using their bodies the way they’re meant to be used – out in the world. This might sound silly but we’re eating less dirt than before. When you don’t eat dirt, your immune system doesn’t make the kind of antibodies to protect yourself from the diseases we’re seeing. So the sanitisation of the world is hurting children in insidious ways. Getting dirty, being part of nature develops healthy human beings. That’s why the garden’s important.”
"There's a real international playground movement taking hold around the world, and it's really very exciting," says David Elkind, a professor of child development at Tufts University and author of the recently published book "The Power of Play."
Nor is it only celebrity designers and architects who are starting to take playgrounds seriously. Here in Boston, a public-private partnership called the Boston Schoolyard Initiative has over the past decade refurbished 61 of the city's schoolyards, furnishing formerly neglected spaces with play structures and greenery. Recent years have also seen the creation of nonprofits, like the MetLife Foundation Parks & Playgrounds Fund and KaBOOM!, dedicated to improving children's access to playgrounds. KaBOOM! has partnered with Home Depot and Kimberly-Clark and earned the endorsement of Senator Hillary Clinton in its mission to provide "a great place to play within walking distance of every child in America."
This pro-playground vanguard, according to the child psychologists, designers, architects, parents and teachers who form it, is motivated by the conviction that play, in a larger sense, is under attack. High-stakes testing has elbowed recess out of the school day, video games keep kids indoors and sedentary, while parents, fearful of pedophiles and abductions, no longer let children roam freely.
All in all, the average child's life is more regimented than it was 20 years ago, with more young children in day care, more lessons and rehearsals and practices, and less free time. The fact that communities are getting serious about play, proponents hope, means leaders recognize the extent to which it is endangered in modern society.
At the same time, this reexamination of playgrounds is triggered by the conviction that, in the United States in particular, playgrounds have become rather unfun -- designed with only safety in mind, they've lost the capacity to excite or challenge children.
Playgrounds have always been places where the need for free, even rambunctious, play bumps up against parental fears about safety. The new playground advocates are trying to find a better balance. "The history of playgrounds," says Roger Hart, director of the Children's Environments Research Group at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, "is a history of containment."
The country's first permanent playground, in New York City's Seward Park, was built in 1903 for children from the nearby Lower East Side tenements. According to Adrian Benepe, commissioner of New York City's Department of Parks and Recreation, early American playgrounds "grew out of social workers trying to provide safe places in overcrowded slums." Tenement children played in the streets and on piers, sometimes being run over by streetcars, sometimes drowning in the East River.
But what concerned the Progressive reformers as much as children's safety, according to Roger Hart, who was also a consultant to the Imagination Playground, was the thought that by running wild in the streets, immigrant children weren't learning the sort of values that would make them upstanding, hard-working Americans. "There was this ideological split between those who argued that children would learn what they needed just by playing in the streets, and those who wanted to put them in playgrounds," Hart says.
The Seward Playground wasn't very different from what we think of as a playground today. With structures to swing and climb on and a running track encircling them, it served as a model for decades.
Safety concerns eventually remade the playground, according to Susan Solomon, an architectural historian and author of a history of American playgrounds. In recent decades, she argues, fear of personal injury lawsuits has shrunk the playground. Slides and swings today are lower, and therefore slower, than before. Raised platforms are girded by railings, and monkey bars are practically nonexistent. "The see-saw today," points out Solomon, "is pretty much a horizontal bar that hardly moves in either direction. It just kind of jiggles a little bit." School playgrounds in Broward County, in south Florida, now post "No Running" signs.
It is futile to try to evade the issue of unsafe city streets by attempting to make some other features of a locality, say interior courtyards, or sheltered play spaces, safe instead. By definition again, the streets of a city must do most of the job of handling stangers for this is where strangers come and go. The streets must not only defend the city against predatory strangers, they must protect the many, many peaceable and well-meaning strangers who use them, insuring their safety too as they pass through. Moreover, no normal person can spend his life in some artificial haven, and this includes children. Everyone must use the streets.