in sweden kids are free to swing and climb and break their arms

I took my kids to a renovated playground on Sunday morning, and two things stood out, other than the seeping chill of early October in Sweden:  the four dads and the fact that my daughter could have easily broken her arm.

I loved both.

I recently got a request from a Canadian journalist who wanted to find a park where dads meet.  I couldn’t answer it because that encompasses every park in Stockholm.  And there is no special time either – just when kids play.  So it was no surprise that there were three other dads and me at the playground, and it was no surprise that we ignored each other (ahhh, Sweden).

But the new playground equipment was amazing – this huge climbing thing, with rope steps and balancing paths 9 feet off the ground.  There are sliding poles that fall 10 feet and which my daughter refused to acknowledge (No!  This is where you jump!)

She is 4.  She is really too young for this playground, but her preschool comes here and she is a master of the jungle gym.

And then there are the swings.  Brand new swings.

I compare this with the US, where swings are disappearing, where anything fun and challenging is disappearing.  From an editorial from Investor’s Business Daily (not a socialist mouthpiece by any means):

Fearing lawsuits over injuries, a West Virginia county is removing swing sets from elementary schools. A minor, local issue? No. America’s litigious society has changed the way kids play …

A Massachusetts elementary school has told students they can’t play tag. One Boston school forbids handstands while another in Needham, Mass., doesn’t allow students to hang upside down from the monkey bars. A pool in Hazleton, Pa., closed some years ago after a swimmer sued for $100,000 because he cut his foot running and jumping into the pool, though he’d been warned not to.

“There is nothing left in playgrounds that would attract the interest of a child over the age of four,” Philip K. Howard, lawyer and author, wrote in the Wall Street Journal in 2008.

I fear that I oversell Sweden sometimes.  It is not paradise.  There are huge downsides to living here.  But, paradoxically, what the socialist Swedes have that supposedly so independent Americans lack is this:  common sense and a sense of personal responsibility.

As a country, Sweden takes care of people where they truly need it (as babies, by allowing parents to stay at home) and then does not overprotect them when they do not need it (as kids, who are allowed to jump off swings, and even break their arms).

I love that.  My kid feels safe because I got to be home with her.  And she can use that safety to play and push herself and find her boundaries.

And sure I cringe and stand beneath her and nag her to be careful.

But better that than my and the kids staring at an empty field.


6 thoughts on “in sweden kids are free to swing and climb and break their arms

  1. You could write an article about how lack of universal healthcare has ruined america’s children’s fun… I have given the differences between the USA and Sweden on this, and think in play as in birth practices, all the problems come down to lawsuits. People cease to be free when they live trying to avoid litigation, afraid to have people over even in some cases lest someone slip and fall….and sue. But the reason americas birth practices are over cautious and dangerous to mothers and babies is the same thing making people over cautious about playgrounds. If something goes wrong, their is a good chance the injured person would incur huge costs… medically for short and long term results, and in other areas like education or special rehab or education if the injury is neurological. If there is a social safety net like Sweden, where medical, all life long therapies, and education are covered there is no need to sue. People in USA sue because they need to cover the bottom line, not because they are mean. If they have a injured baby, or a playground injury, they gotta find a pocket to pay from. I have been surprised that in the national dialogue about healthcare, the fact that it would reduce lawsuits has not been brought up. The long term consequences are really bad for things like no swings, too…..the whole field of occupational therapy for children is about prescribing sensory diets….usually experiences children naturally seek out in play, like swinging, or being in small cuddly spaces, because they recognize the need for these experiences for neurological development. There is a reason kids swing, it has to do with the inner ear, and their development of proprioception/where they are in space and time, and if we take that kind of away they lose more than recess….they will get wonkier little brains, and need more meds…so i guess that is good for business, at least. On another note, an american friend who runs an indoor play center says when he made his budget for insurance premiums, he adjusted it to what he thought would be a reasonable guess in Sweden….in reality, the cost was 10x lower. People do not sue. Swedish kids do have more fun.

  2. Oh man, now I’m even more depressed about it. You know, we also get conflicted about moving back to the US, about wanting to be in the sun, be near family, to give our kids a childhood where people smile at them, where they are allowed to be different and all that.

    But is America still that place? We always have the sun and my family but I’m starting to wonder about the cultural benefits. I always assumed I would find a place that still had swings and where people were not terrified of lawsuits, but maybe that is just an illusion.

    And I love that swinging is good for you. I spent hours and hours on swings as a kid – maybe it’s why i ended up on paternity leave and not working 90 hours a week and depressed in some American newsroom …

  3. Oh, and I totally agree on the lawsuits. To get political, this is why I can’t get behind the Democrats .., with their huge trial lawyer lobby. Even if you buy the argument that lawsuits are the only way regular folk can get justice, then change the system so they get justice without taking away my kid’s swings … don’t go perpetuating a broken system. But it’s not like I believe in the justice of the Democratic Party, sold out and broken as it is.

  4. Oh boy do I hear ya on this. I have written about this phenomena myself and am trying to let go of my North American-based grip on my child. Just a few experiences, of many here in Uppsala:
    – A little neighbour girl of about 2 and a half regularly climbing fences, riding her bike along the road where a bus regularly goes flying by, monkeying around on old playground equipment…and in most cases her parents are NOT with her but 2 doors down, coming to check on her every 30 mins or so. GASP.
    – Four and five year olds cruising the neighbourhood on their bikes, parentless.
    – Parents watching as their toddlers run, jump, climb…so very close to falling as I bite my lip and resist the urge to spotcheck every one of them.
    I am slowly learning to relax a bit and enjoy kids being kids in a country where parents don’t have to worry about being sued if a kid falls in their ice-covered driveway and breaks his leg.

  5. Ps. I am going to link to your post on my blog, if that’s ok.

  6. Thanks for the link! And it sounds even more relaxed out your way. Here in sort of Brooklyn-ish parts of Stockholm, there are no kids on their own, but out near our summer cottage, the neighbors let their 18-month-old wander the whole forest last summer.

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