Naomi Buck is a Toronto-based writer.
Following umbrellas, hard balls and patches of ice, yet another hazard has presented itself on the playground of an elementary school in midtown Toronto. The cartwheel, not generally considered a thing of peril, has been banned, together with the entire family of activities it belongs to, commonly known as gymnastics. The powers that be have determined that these risky contortions of young bodies and outright defiance of the laws of gravity have no place on the school playground.
According to a teacher at the school, enthusiasm for gymnastics has been spreading beyond its classic cohort of Grade 5 and 6 girls in recent weeks, as the pre-teen pros have been assisting younger students in attempting cartwheels, handstands and bridges on a grassy patch of the playground. It's not clear which manoeuvre prompted the prohibition; the girls say that reports of attempted backflips are vastly exaggerated and that the teachers simply lack the vocabulary to properly describe their back bends, bridges and limbers.
"Nobody has ever hurt themselves," says one of the prime offenders, a Grade 5 student who rock-climbs in her free time. "I was like, what the heck?!"
I was too, and not because my children (who, as boys, are more drawn to speed, balls, and combat) are directly impacted, but because I as a girl loved gymnastics – less the official practice in gyms than the freelance opportunities presented by hills, trees and the plain old ground. Girlhood to me is unthinkable without these physical challenges, which could be practised any time and anywhere, and formed the glue of many of my girlhood friendships.
So what's the problem? According to the principal, responding to perplexed parents' inquiries, "the staff are not comfortable with the level of risk." And to be fair, it's not an outright ban. The policy, broadcast through the school during morning announcements, merely insists that a "trained spotter" be present. But with no "trained spotters" manifesting on the playground, the children must content themselves with boring old bipedalism.
Risk is a big word in parenting theses days; in fact, we may be the most paranoid generation of parents in history. But as study after study demonstrates how our excessively risk-averse parenting is creating children who are less resilient, less able to overcome challenge, less agile, more fat, more insecure and more inclined to bully or be bullied, one would hope that we would support, if not insist on, a school allowing our children to put themselves upside-down if they want to.
What's the alternative? What would a risk-free recess look like? I see girls huddled around iPhones watching videos of their favourite boy bands, friending and unfriending each other to death and figuring out ways to jump the fence to do the things they want – surely cartwheels are the lesser evil.
My five-year-old son, still in kindergarten and not yet swimming in the ocean of the main playground, was reflecting on the problem when he asked "Mummy, is walking dangerous?" I had to remind him of the sign post that he walked into recently, while going past his kindergarten playground and marvelling at the shenanigans going on therein. We did not request the end of shenanigans or the removal of the signpost. After all, it holds up the 30 km/h speed limit sign, which is the only token of civility in front of the school during morning drop-off, as parent-driven cars and SUVs battle for parking spots, execute three-point turns on curbs and eject their children in the middle of the street.
It's time to give some serious thought to which risks are real and which ones are imagined and what role we, as adults, play in creating, if not inventing, them.