Organized Sports or Trees? Choose Your Risk

Organized sports are great for kids, but they’re also risky – just like climbing trees.

I read two articles recently that got me thinking about the modern state of parenting. One was titled, We Don’t Allow Children to Climb Trees.” It was a discussion of new restrictions put in place by early childhood education providers in Norway. These new guidelines demonstrate a shift from “more relaxed attitudes regarding risky play” to a safety-based stance that is less tolerant of those childhood activities many of us used to hold so dear, like climbing trees or balancing on a tall fence.

The other article was a recently released research paper titled, Common sports-related musculoskeletal injuries presenting to the emergency department. This article, published in the Journal of Paediatrics and Child Health, examined the increasing incidence of sports overuse injuries in young children, including fractures, ankle sprains, and apophytis. The researchers discussed some ways parents and coaches can protect children from these sports-related injuries.

A Contradiction

The ideas discussed in these articles highlight a self-contradiction we parents fall into when it comes to our children. On the one hand, we are increasingly reticent to allow our kids to do the things that have always been associated with childhood, like climbing trees or playing barefoot in the dirt. We restrict these activities due to the fact that they are too risky.

On the other hand, parents are more and more pushy when it comes to participation and performance in organized sports. Somehow it’s easier to overlook the risk involved, despite the fact that doctors and other health professionals are writing research papers about this very topic.

The authors of the study in the Journal of Paediatrics noted that, “with an increased emphasis on success in sport, tendinopathy and fatigue fractures are now being reported with increasing frequency.” When you consider the amount of time many kids spend on the field, it’s no surprise that childhood sports have these risks. They just happen to be more organized and socially acceptable than dirt, sharp rocks, and tall objects.

So if sports are so risky, why are we parents more likely to allow and even encourage our kids to play them? And on the flip side, why are there so many parents at the playground who freak out when I let my five-year-old attempt to climb a tree?

Trees Are Teachers

I’m not here to question the benefits of childhood athletics. But I do think it’s important to remember one thing about the more playful activities of bygone days: they are teachers. They have the ability to shape the character and physical capacity of a child in just as powerful a way as organized sports.

The article in the Journal of Play noted just a few of the things children learn from risky play:

  • Kids learn their limits
  • Risky play teaches kids to overcome their fears
  • Risk-taking allows kids to test and develop their physical abilities
  • Risky play may help kids overcome phobias or prevent phobias from becoming worse.

It’s easy for us adults to see the lessons kids learn from organized sports. Sports teach kids personal responsibility, teamwork, the importance of hard work – all good lessons. And of course, there are the physical benefits as well. That’s why we let our kids risk incurring serious injuries. It’s why we allow them to feel the sting of defeat on the field, even though we know how bad it hurts.

But we shouldn’t underestimate the effect of play, or forget the role it plays in developing a child’s sense of self. Let’s not forget the lessons learned from trees. Lessons for our kids, and maybe even for ourselves.

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