It’s mid-October, so it must be Get Rid of Monkey Bars! season. As an early childhood educator, I know the drill. Monkey bars are so retro (not in a fun way). Monkey bars are the scourge of the playground. Someone’s kid just broke an arm on the monkey bars. Can you believe we still have monkey bars? Somebody really should call the authorities about those monkey bars…
As Dan Kois writes today in, “Monkey Bars Are a Menace”:
Monkey bars broke my daughter’s arm. Why are they still around?
He marshals his evidence, sort of. Monkey bars account for a sizable percentage of children’s fractures, according to an X-ray tech friend. I’m too lazy to hunt down the stats myself — he’s claiming 15-20 percent – but the hectoring epidemiologist in me wants to point out the distinction between relative and attributable risk. Sure, you’re relatively more at risk of breaking an elbow monkeying around on monkey bars than while eating Fritos on your couch. But how many fractures are we actually talking about here? Seriously? Most kids don’t break bones! And even the ones that do often have so-called green stick fractures that heal beautifully and rarely require a cast. (My son got one … at a bar mitzvah party.)
I know there are two parenting camps about these sorts of things - the worriers and the slackers – but I’m going to stake out a middle ground. (How novel for me!). Monkey bars are really, really great for gross motor control. Few things are as thrilling as gaining mastery of monkey bars. We’ve taken away most of the fun and learning out of childhood but I really think monkey bars have to stay. I do, however, have a small suggestion.
I wonder why we put so much responsibility on small children’s shoulders when there is a simpler solution. What happened to “spotting” kids who do scary things? Little kids need supervision. They need to understand that monkey bars are a choice for when an adult is standing by. That’s what we did when I taught preschool and the kids monitored themselves and immediately called out a kid who wandered over to the monkey bars when the area was ‘closed.’ In the early childhood education biz, we call this “scaffolding:” giving small children the appropriate level of teacher support to meet their goals.
Why, then, is the more typical response either to let kids hurt themselves or whisk the monkey bars away? How about adults do their jobs on the playground? Oh wait… schools don’t value play, so there’s no incentive for teachers to help facilitate play, especially when they’re so underpaid for all the off-hours preparation they do. And teaching is generally a very solitary affair (inappropriately so, in my view) so teachers have limited opportunities to interact with other adults during the day, which really isn’t the way normal adult work life is supposed to be, so can you blame them for chit-chatting on the playground? Besides, a lot of schools don’t even let teachers anywhere near playgrounds, delegating the supervision to ‘para-professionals’ with little or no training instead.
Plus, if we’re being totally honest here, most elementary school teachers are women, and a lot of them just aren’t that in to running around on a playground. (I speak from my own lazy-ass experience.) And school administrators are revving everyone up, too, worrying about liability and banning throwing snowballs. I’m not making that up. My naughty but enterprising middle child tried to get around that rule by making snow squares.
If we want kids to play more, we have to do a couple things better than we’re doing them now: first, parents have to tolerate a little more risk. And school staff need to step up to the plate and create play opportunities that are fun, engaging, and physically rewarding.
There are a lot of things in life that seem to occur naturally but, in fact, require some coaching and support. (Breastfeeding comes to mind.) Play falls in that category, too. People think play just “happens,” but children need the right ingredients if we want them to experience the joyful, rigorous, and narratively-rich play many of us took for granted a generation ago.
There are of course public health interventions that should be non-negotiable: seat belts, bike helmets, smoke detectors. But there’s a gray area between ‘safe’ and ‘dangerous,’ and monkey bars fall within it. Let’s leave those monkey bars exactly where they are. Put down a few extra inches of mulch. Take a deep breath. And make sure one of the big monkeys is watching the little monkeys as they take that soaring leap into independence.