Several months ago, Mercer park in Iowa City, Iowa (duh), received the state’s largest play structure for children. It had multiple slides, a toddler climbing wall, swings aplenty, and the focus of this piece: a footbridge.
The footbridge was just over six feet off the ground—I could stand under it and almost touch it with the tippity-top of my head—and connected the climbing wall to the main structure. When I saw it, I immediately thought of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. The ending, specifically, when Indy is trapped on a rope bridge far above a river, Thuggee members closing in on him menacingly.
I didn’t envision Indy because the footbridge was made of rope or flimsy in any way, but because it contained steps. The bridge didn’t have a fixed-bottom without gaps; it was a step bridge. When you looked down you could see the ground below you.
I liked that.
It added a sense of danger to the proceedings, something my four-year-old daughter realized after scaling the climbing wall and discovering the bridge. Grasping the side rails tightly, she hesitatingly put her right foot out onto the first step. After deciding all was well, she joined it with her left foot.
The entire time she bent at the waist, steadying herself as she white-knuckled the support rails. Every step was slow; every step was cautious.
About half-way across, she cried out to me: “Daddy, I need help!”
There was slight fear in her voice.
I climbed up and stood in front of her. “You don’t need help, sweetie,” I coaxed. “You can do this. You’re a big, strong, brave girl.”
So, still moving slowly and cautiously, she made her way forward as I continued encouraging her.
When she made it to the other side my daughter shouted in joy: “Daddy! I did it!”
She was proud of herself, and eventually crossed the bridge several more times. It became one of her favorite things at the park. She loved the thrill, the fear, and the sense of accomplishment.
All of which are important to childhood development, I might add.
Because we live about thirty minutes from Mercer park, we didn’t go there often; maybe twice a month. On our last trip we made a horrible discovery: the step bridge had been modified, and not for the better. A thick tarp has been fastened across the entirety of the bridge.
Every gap is gone; any sense of wonder or fear disappeared.
I contacted both the city and the playground maker and made inquiries as to why adjustments had been made, and the reasoning I got was: “It was added to prevent missteps.”
I absolutely doubt that.
I believe the rubber was added out of fear. Either parents feared for their children’s safety and complained, or the company (or city) feared a lawsuit.
Could a child have fallen, even gotten hurt?
But kids can fall anywhere. They run around and fall down and bonk into things constantly. It’s what kids do, and the world is not an inherently safe place. Which isn’t to say playgrounds should be littered with broken glass and burning fires; I’m not advocating for an end to car seats or bike safety caps on medicine, but nominal danger is OK.
With the continued helicopter-parenting of America, no child can take a risk and every company fears a lawsuit. It’s funny, and by that I mean sad. I hear talk of how weak Millennials are; how they’re soft, entitled, can’t handle a challenge and that they all want participation badges for showing up… but you know what?
Someone had to give them those participation badges. Someone had to instill entitlement in them.
Parents created Millennials; they didn’t raise themselves.
Children need to learn to overcome fear. They need to explore, and gain confidence in themselves.
The only way to do that is to present them with fear, to give them challenges.
Photo: Courtesy of author