Controversy has erupted over the fate of a tree at Regina Beach, in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan. A child fell out of the tree and broke a leg, and now the municipal maintenance crew has announced its intention to cut down the tree – for "safety reasons." This decision follows a "risk assessment" completed by Saskatchewan Parks that obviously deemed the tree a safety hazard.
This news has not gone over well with the nearby residents of Regina Beach. Last week a group of 40 people gathered around the tree to prevent crews from cutting it down. They succeeded temporarily, but the group fears the crews will return, which is why they might take round-the-clock shifts to ensure it doesn’t happen when protesters are not there.
I’m no stranger to this twisted perception of trees as Whomping Willows out to get vulnerable little children that many Canadian municipal authorities seem to have. All the trees around the perimeter of my son’s school playground have been cut down "for liability reasons," according to the town, and not replanted. The result is a scorching hot Astroturf-and-concrete playground that receives no shade during the kids’ hour-long recess at noon. All this summer, I’ve watched majestic maples and pines come crashing down around town, and nobody gives a better reason than "it could fall down and I don’t want to get sued."
What people should be more worried about is what kind of children we’re raising when risk is so carefully edited out of their lives. It seems that the standard for what constitutes safety just keeps getting higher, which means it’s progressively harder for children to encounter those situations in which they have to independently assess challenges that come their way and figure out how to deal with them. Without trees to climb (and fall out of), we raise a generation of wimps.
Play that’s entirely devoid of risk ceases to be fun, and then what’s the point? Kids would rather stay indoors, in their "ultra-safe, well-padded, child-proofed, stairway-gated, climate-controlled environments, playing video games or watching TV under watchful parental supervision – instead of risking their lives climbing trees or frolicking in the lake" (National Post).
Ironically, the supposedly safe electronic entertainment that occupies so much of children’s lives now has its own share of risks and consequences, from obesity and sickliness to addiction and online predators. It leaves kids clueless and more vulnerable when they do actually venture outside.
When I was 8 years old, I fell from the top of my 20-foot-high treehouse and broke my arm. It hurt a lot, and I wore a cast for the whole summer, which meant I couldn’t swim in the lake. And yet, despite the inconvenience and pain, that cast was a badge of honor and tangible evidence of my having the highest, best, and most badass treehouse in the area. I didn't blame the treehouse for my accident, but rather flaunted that cast relentlessly in the faces of kids who hadn’t broken limbs.
My parents didn’t ban me from the tree house after that incident, nor did having a cast prevent me from playing in the treehouse for the rest of the summer. It did, however, teach me to confirm the position and security of an extension ladder before stepping onto it.
Modern parents need to stop thinking that anything and everything will kill their children. There’s a lot more at stake than broken limbs when we cut down trees. We risk mutilating the experience of childhood and stunting kids’ development – both physical and psychological – when we remove all risk from their lives, and that’s far more cruel in the long run than having to wear a cast for a few weeks.