One of the most striking differences between our son’s Kindergarten in Germany and the one he goes to now in the US is how the kids play. In Germany, the kids were very physical. They had a huge playground with swings, an oversized sandbox, a jungle jim and much more. They could climb trees, get high up a climbing wall, swing from ropes and what not. The boys would play soccer on a adjacent court, ride Bobbycars, dig with huge shovels. They even had an old firetruck to play in, a big hit. Our son came home a few times with scrapes and bruises, always dirty, but always happy.
Here it’s the complete opposite. He’s gotten into trouble a few times already because he’s too used to wrestling with the other boys. The ‘hands off’ mentality is a source of frustration for him, as is the very clean and safe playground. The only stains on his clothes now are from the cafeteria food.
‘The cotton wool mentality’, that’s what an Australian principal of an elementary school calls it. The overprotective book of rules that prevent kids from getting hurt, but also prevent them from playing and releasing their energy. So his school ran an experiment in cooperation with an university that wanted to encourage active play. They got rid of all the rules and basically let the kids play free during recess. It turned out to be a huge success. “The school is actually seeing a drop in bullying, serious injuries and vandalism, while concentration levels in class are increasing”, a news channel reports (read the full report and watch a video of the school here).
What was interesting, is that the university states cotton-wooling is actually more dangerous in the long run. One of the professors involved in the research said that risk-taking has great benefits. Children develop the frontal lobe of their brain when taking risks, meaning they work out consequences. That’s a skill they need later in life. Especially teens with their natural ability towards taking risk may benefit from experimenting with risk taking on a small scale.
How does this cotton-wool mentality affect your youth ministry? Is your risk-aversion so great, your fear of students getting hurt so big that you’re only making matters worse? What ruled could you let go of that would improve the atmosphere and help students get experience in risk-taking? Something worth thinking about.