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Tue, May 27, 2014
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Letting the kids into the 'wild'
by Clara Chow

A friend of mine says she calls her 11-year-old son from the office every day to order him outside.

"What are you doing?" she would demand over the phone. "Watching TV? Go out and play!"

When she told me this, my eyes goggled. I am the opposite. I freak out at the thought of my two sons, eight and four, running around under the searing sun.

When the Supportive Spouse pulls on his trainers, tucks a basketball under his arm and heads for the door with our boys, I'd be yelling like a harpy: "No one gets hit in the face by a ball, is that understood? If anyone gets a nose bleed or a scar, basketball is SO OVER! AM I CLEAR?"

On my watch, the kids are - if I am honest with myself - under a sort of house arrest. They are escorted to school and back, then spend most of their day cooped up in our flat, forbidden to do any "dangerous" things such as horsing around on the stairs, swinging from banisters or playing catch indoors (too many sharp edges they might knock into).

The little brother likes to careen in his Little Tykes ride-on police car around the living room, but inevitably bumps into the furniture at 20kmh.

Yet, letting him and big brother charge around downstairs (our block does not have a void deck), just metres away from the carpark, is a no-go zone with me. And god forbid that they should leave my sight.

An article two months ago in The Atlantic magazine, however, has made me seriously reconsider this sheltered, air-conditioned bubble I've been keeping my kids in.

In The Overprotected Kid, Hanna Rosin examines how children today are no longer allowed to roam freely and make up their own play rituals.

She cites as a counterpoint The Land in North Wales: a progressive "adventure playground", essentially a glorious wasteland-junkyard, where kids can roll piles of tyres into water and set things on fire while professionally trained "playworkers" keep watch without intervening too much.

Such a playground sounds very new wave, but is positively old school: It was basically what kids in 1950s to 1980s Singapore did, minus the playworkers.

Rosin's well-researched piece goes on to look at how the freedom of children to discover territory by themselves has been eroded over the years as parents become more obsessed about safety.

Most chillingly, she points towards studies that suggest that as playgrounds become so-called safer, rubber-matted and boring places, children are also losing opportunities to hone their instincts for negotiating risks and to overcome their fears.

Kids who stay indoors also stand to lose out in terms of social and emotional skills.

"Free-range kids", as those allowed to wander and explore on their own are called, are less likely to experience separation anxiety as teenagers, are more imaginative and build up their own community distinct from adults' social networks.

Reading the article, I am reminded of my own 1980s childhood, where I did quite a bit of wandering in the condominium my family lived in, from the age of seven. I was lucky to have a cousin - 10 months older and infinitely more sensible - living in the same block, whom my mother trusted to look out for me.

While we did not have the kind of generous, sprawling yards that kids in suburbia overseas have, our little forays into weird nooks and crannies satisfied our taste for thrills: venturing under the lanky hair of the banyan tree near the run-down tennis courts (and getting eaten alive by mosquitoes); peering into the deserted condo management office; poking around the letter boxes; and colonising the huge (to us) security guard post in the lobby, which was never manned, and making it our battle headquarters.

With a guilty pang, I realise that my sons' childhoods look very different - filled with two work-from-home parents who bear down on them whenever they do anything remotely hazardous.

I think back to sneaking off with my cousin away from our mums and recognise that as the start of my history as a true person - enacting events in places we found, then symbolically conquered; imprinting a geographical landscape on our minds and souls, even as the process created new neural paths and labyrinths in our young fleshy brains.

So, I'm the one taking baby steps now as I learn to let go and release my kids into the "wild". Earlier this week, I let the little brother venture into the corridor to play hopscotch. Perhaps this weekend, I would be brave enough to let them make the 400m trek to the playground hand-in-hand while I watch from our window.

After that, who knows? I hope they make friends with other children like them. I imagine them as a reverse Children of the Corn - Children of Air-con? - emerging just beyond their ken, blinking as the sun's rays hit their innocent eyes.

This article was first published on May 25, 2014.
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