Scaredy Cats

School of hard knocks


Kids who are prevented from taking risks are more likely to be anxious and fearful later in life, posits a paper in a 2011 issue of the journal Evolutionary Psychology. Authors Ellen Sandseter, a psychologist at Queen Maud University in Norway, and Leif Edward Ottesen Kennair, a psychologist at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, used observations of small groups of kids in Norway, England, and Australia. They found that when kids are insulated from opportunities to take risks—such as climbing, roughhousing, playing near fire and water, and exploring alone—they fail to learn the limits of their own abilities and consequently become less confident and more fearful.

"Children need to encounter risks and overcome fears on the playground," Sandseter told The New York Times. "I think monkey bars and tall slides are great. As playgrounds become more and more boring, these are some of the few features that still can give children thrilling experiences with heights and high speed."

Sometimes lessons must be learned the hard way, Sandseter and Kennair argue: A child injured in a fall before the age of 9 is unlikely to suffer long-term harm from the injury but is less likely to have a fear of heights as a teenager. Institutional elements matter too. "Overprotection through governmental control of playgrounds and exaggerated fear of playground accidents," the authors conclude, may "result in an increase of anxiety in society."