Why keeping children ultra-safe is not good parenting - Interview with plenary speaker Dr Mariana Brussoni


Dr Mariana Brussoni will speak on achieving a balanced risk perception in childhood and adolescence at the upcoming Summit. She is a developmental child psychologist who has investigated child injury prevention and children’s outdoor play for 15 years. Dr. Brussoni and her team at the University of British Columbia has recently developed an online tool to encourage parents to allow children to take part in “risky” outdoor play. We spoke to Dr. Brussoni about the tool and kids need for risk and excitement in their play.

The idea of keeping kids ultra-safe is a fairly recent trend. When did parents in general start feeling a greater sense of risk for their children? 

Mariana BrussoniThe norms around intensive parenting started around the late 1980s and the move towards making playgrounds ultra-safe and keeping kids ultra-safe begun in the late 80s. Postwar North America was a very affluent time where one could have a very good life and job on a high-school education. However, when the financial recession started in the 1980s, it was not good enough to have a high school education. Parents were moving towards this intensive parenting model, and that was becoming the norm around "how do I make sure that my child is not the child left behind". Many parents were thinking, "My child needs to be in lots of sports, they need to be learning many languages, and music, and going to the right schools."

A noticeable shift happened in seeing the child as vulnerable and in need of care, rather than as competent and capable. In the 2000s, social media began, and people are looking and sharing what it is to be a "good parent." Adding these trends together, along with some other societal forces and we end up where we are at today.

We know that playing outside is exciting for children, but there are unique benefits to outdoor play for children. What are the significant outcomes for children that are playing outside vs inside?

Most of us, when asked about our favourite play memory, remember that it will have been outside, and unsupervised, and probably not in a playground, but a forest, or ravine, or ditch, or a place we do not consider a play space. People mention the sense of freedom, being able to meet friends and make up their minds what they wanted to do, and how to do it.

Kids move around more when they are outside. They are more physically active, less sedentary, and they are less likely to eat unhealthy snacks because they are not by the fridge, mindlessly eating. They are using their executive functioning because they are trying to decide what to do and how to do it, and what their goals are in directing their attention. They are developing their socio-emotional learning because they are hanging out with their friends, and there is not an adult telling them what the rules are. They are figuring it out for themselves and navigating those conflicts themselves. They are managing challenges, so they are developing their resilience and risk management skills. Some of those things can happen inside, but a lot of them cannot, and that is why being outside is so important.

Your team has developed an online tool that supports ‘risky’ play for children, encouraging parents to allow their children more opportunities to play outside. What led you to develop that, and in what circumstances is it most useful?

The tool builds upon work done by Professor Anita Bundy at the University of Sydney in Australia. They conducted a randomized control trial with 12 schools where they put loose parts on the playground, and the kids could play with them at recess. They found that they had to work with teachers and parents to get them to leave the kids alone to actually play, and developed what they call the risk-reframing workshop to do that. In 2014 I went to visit Professor Bundy and her lab, they shared it with me, and I brought it back to Canada. I adapted it to the Canadian context, and I added other elements, for example, injury statistics.  

We heard a lot in our workshops, "How do I get this information? What do you have that I can share with other people?" We thought that putting it online would be a good way of getting it out more broadly, allowing for conversations with friends, partners and others.

The tool itself should work for everybody, regardless of gender, or the age of the kids. The principles are the same in terms of thinking about getting outside, letting their kids have these experiences, and how to best support them.

What kind of information do you feel works best in helping parents that are feeling they need to keep their children ultra-safe? What type of information is easy for them to understand and process?

The tool has a two-minute video in the beginning, which shares some statistics to help the parents open up their mind. For example, in Canada, there is about a one in 14 million chance that a stranger would kidnap your child.

The tool starts with the characteristics that the parent wants their child to have when they grow up. It asks the parent about their favourite childhood activity, their child's favourite activity, and what they got out of the activities they did as a child. Following this, there is a summary screen showing you what the parent wants for his or her child, what the child is allowed to do, what the parent did at the same age, and how they benefitted from that. Then you have contrast, are the activities building the kinds of characteristics that the parent want their child to have when they grow up?

The next stage of the tool is to identify what makes it hard for the parents to let go. It has three video scenarios of kids doing different things. The first one is climbing a tree. The second one is a child who wants to walk to school on its own. The third is a child who wants to use box cutters to make a fort. The scenario plays out and then stops for the parent to make a decision. Are you going to stop the child from climbing a tree? Are you going to let them walk to school, or are you going to let them use the box cutters? The rest of the video plays out according to the choice the parent made, and it is possible to watch the alternate ending as well.

The videos are designed so that when a parent, for example, deny the child something, you can see the expression on the child's face, what it does to the child, and what they hear. You have that scenario versus when the child is allowed to do what they can do. It is important for the parent to think about the child and the child's perspective, but also, about what it is that gets in their way of letting go. What are the fears that come up for them? After they have viewed those videos, there is a multiple-choice test to identify what the things are that get in the way of allowing their child to do something.

The next stage is to think about things that could help you let go, identification of barriers and facilitators. The parents can have these in mind when they get to the third stage, which is to make a plan for change. The tool has simple steps broken down; for example, it could be letting your child play outside unsupervised.

It seems that teachers and parents are the most prominent groups you are trying to influence?

The tool itself is for parents, but we just received funding to develop a tool for early childhood educators. In addition to what the parents are thinking, educators are dealing with other questions, for example, "Do I need to worry about liability issues?" Thus, a tool for teachers or educators would have to be a lot more comprehensive.

Do you have any specific expectations or hopes for the summit in October when you are coming?

I am interested in meeting other people, and to learn more from other participants to see what I can bring back to my research and Canada. I would also like to share what we have learned in Canada, but I am most interested in hearing what other participants will be sharing.