Better Safe than Sorry?

How Fear Stole Physical Literacy From Our Children

Three decades ago, neighborhood play was alive. Stickball, home run derby, touch football, and even street hockey were all synonymous with Americana, imbedded in the culture of both urban and suburban childhood. It was unsupervised daily activities like these that allowed children to establish the independence needed for enriched cognitive growth and social integration. They were a common language between neighbors that forged community and trust. And then they disappeared.

What happened? In order to better understand the current movement crisis, we must first look back in order to better understand the problem, so we can move forward with a purpose. Instead of asking why our children have become physically illiterate, we should be asking how this came to be. And that is a complex, multifactorial question to answer.

The Price of Justice

The series of unrelated events that created today’s youth movement crisis began in 1988, with the birth of America’s Most Wanted, a television show depicting real life fugitives as they evaded capture and prosecution. After the successful airing of the critically acclaimed movie Adam some years prior (the story of his young son’s kidnapping and murder), John Walsh created what became the first reality crime drama in the US. While the show did its part to capture rouge criminals and promote justice, it struck fear into millions of people nationwide, especially parents. Thus began the American campaign against “strangers”, and the beginning of the end of neighborhood play.

By the early 1990’s, millions of American parents began to see adults they did not know as potential threats to the safety of their children. US law enforcement efforts to create “stranger danger” awareness resulted in years of targeted educational messaging on streets, in the newspaper, and in other media. This propaganda led many parents to determine that the US had simply become an unsafe place, and precautionary measures were necessary to protect their kin (today we know this to be exaggerated). Not long after, the business of ensuring the safety of children blossomed into a multi-billion dollar industry.

Play-dates, Minivans and Sports

By the end of the 1990’s, many children were no longer walking the streets freely in their neighborhoods, spending more time under the watchful eye of parents. Instead, parents began to control and influence their free time, often allowing free play only while under direct parental supervision at a predetermined location (and often times at the sacrifice of the mother’s career, but that is a story for another day). Kids no longer walked anywhere – parents drove them to the mall or a friend’s house - and did so in a new brand of car that was developed solely to promote family safety and parental piece of mind. Many children still owned bicycles, but rode them primarily under the watchful eye of their parents. They spent more time indoors, developing (at times unhealthy) dependencies on television, video games, and this novelty known as the Internet.

In lieu of free play, exploration and independence, parents substituted “supervised activities” for their children. Community based activities, little leagues, and Youth Sports Organizations became the best, and at times a very expensive alternative. These trends continue at an extreme today, as parents continue to mistake their child’s enthusiasm for movement as a sign that parental management of non-school related activities is required in order to flourish.

The Death of the Playground

By the 2000’s, most school and community based playgrounds that resembled unstructured landscapes and terrain had been replaced with industrial grade foams, plastics, and predictable forms of entertainment. Why? You guessed it – because they were safer. Despite years of research supporting the needs of our children to naturally move, explore, and discover in an unpredictable way, these essentials were forgone because their safety became more important. As Alice Walton suggests here, “New playgrounds are safe – and that’s why nobody uses them.”

Shifting the Tide

Today’s fight for child physical literacy is not just about teaching them a few exercises, it is about challenging the societal norms of parental fear and safety that exist today. We must not only examine our history, but also the facts about what truly endangers our young ones. We must galvanize around the ethos that was Americana, embrace the globalization of our communities, and trust each other once again. Only then can we truly create the ideal environment - and ideal place, for our children to move early and across a lifespan. I think we can all agree it is a risk worth taking.


Scott C. Anderson MA, ATC
Director of Athletic Training
Stanford University Sports Medicine