On the fence about risky play

It was tempting to blame Toronto Blue Jays outfielder Kevin Pillar for my son’s bad break.

Pillar is a human highlight reel in the outfield, diving through the air in pursuit of fly balls and making impressive acrobatic catches. His exploits have captured the attention of baseball fans across Canada, including my nine-year-old son, Eric.

Eric lives and breathes baseball. When he isn’t in action with his own team, he’s pitching into a net in our backyard or going with his dad to a nearby diamond to work on his skills.

Last summer, after a practice at the team’s home field, Eric and a couple of his teammates were playing around in a casual, unstructured way. As my husband packed up the equipment, the kids were busy creating various fielding challenges. The game Eric invented was to leap up at the fence and attempt to “bring back” a home run ball that was headed out of the park. I imagine a video clip of Pillar climbing the Rogers Centre left-field wall was playing in his head.

Attempting to scale a chain-link fence might sound like risky play, but the ParticipACTION Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth reminds us that “access to active play in nature and outdoors—with its risks—is essential for healthy child development.”

In trying to propel himself up the fence, Eric accidentally flipped over it. He reached out to cushion his fall, thankfully avoiding a more serious injury, but ended up with a broken left arm.

It wasn’t good timing. Eric’s team was gearing up for the two final tournaments of the season. Also, in the week off between those two competitions, we were booked to fly to Manitoba for a visit to my family’s cottage (where, incidentally, I spent every summer of my childhood riding a bike without a helmet and climbing barefoot on huge boulders along the shoreline).

Eric’s tears flowed freely when the doctor told him he would be unable to play baseball for at least six weeks. It also meant he would miss out on all the biking, swimming, golf, tennis, and active play that have always defined our annual cottage vacation.

We did our best to keep perspective and remind ourselves that his injury could have been much worse, and he was only facing a short-term healing process. Because his throwing arm wasn’t affected, there were some outdoor activities still available to him during his week away. My mom hung a magnetic dart board on the deck, and Eric invented accuracy games with a pretend “strike zone”. We found a map of the cottage community and went on long walks to visit all the streets. At the beach, I collected stones and he threw them as far as he could into the lake.

After returning home, he was in the dugout with his teammates for the provincial tournament. He really missed being on the field, but I think it made him appreciate baseball even more. He also became a more supportive team member. Between innings, I heard him tell a teammate: “That was the best inning you’ve ever played at catcher!”

There was another positive outcome, too. Once he got the all-clear from the doctor, we embarked on a home stretching program to regain the range of motion in his elbow. We also added a few basic stretches for his hips and legs. Over time, he showed a visible increase in his overall flexibility, which likely wouldn’t have happened otherwise.

Has this experience turned me against risky play? No.

I agree with ParticipACTION that kids need outdoor, self-directed play that challenges them physically. Obviously, the broken arm wasn’t a highlight of our summer, but I’m still fine with Eric continuing to channel his inner Kevin Pillar.