Tim Gill, a prominent writer and researcher on childhood, asks a roomful of adults to raise their hands if their favourite place to play as a child was outdoors. It seems as if everyone has an arm up, eagerly sharing tales of unsupervised adventures in empty lots and wild forests.

This enthusiasm begins to die down as Gill contrasts these memories with more recent events, referencing the recent detainment of an 11-year-old boy who was shopping alone at the Lego Store in Calgary’s Chinook Centre. Gill says that children today aren’t engaging enough with uncertainty, which prevents them from learning skills they’ll need later in life.

“Recalling these memories, this is not mere nostalgia,” Gill told his audience at the Telus Spark Science Centre on Monday. “The world is different, but children’s appetite for experiences is not.”

Gill doesn’t claim to be a parenting expert. He says there are already too many people telling parents what to do these days. However, he has spent over 15 years writing, researching and speaking about what he says has been a gradual loss of confidence in children’s ability to handle uncertainty. According to Gill, adults today have lost sight of what a good childhood should be like.

“We need to be a bit calmer about minor bruises and scrapes and kids getting upset, because guess what? That’s part of childhood,” he told the Herald. “We need to remind ourselves of how much children like and want to have that sense of freedom, that taste of adventure that we’re in danger of starving.”

Gill is currently on a speaking tour of Canada, the schedule for which is on his website. He will give two more talks in Calgary on Tuesday.

Gill speaks often about how adults can improve playgrounds, and referred to modern play structures as “sterile, brightly coloured bits of plastic.”

“No child over the age of seven will find that stuff at all engaging,” he said.

After his presentation, Gill went outside to see the science centre’s Brainasium, which opened last summer. Telus Spark refers to it on its website as an “adventure space.” One of its more striking features is an 11-metre rope tower with a 19-metre slide. As Gill walked towards it through a triangular wood tunnel with sun streaming in between its beams, he stepped aside for a child to run through.

“You can see there’s some risk here. That’s good,” he said, demonstrating how easy it would be for a child to bump their head if they climbed onto a nearby boulder.

Gill says that this playground is a step in the right direction for Calgary.

“You’ll get the odd child who scrapes or bruises themselves,” he said. “That doesn’t matter, because the benefits in terms of the children’s enjoyment and their learning far outweigh the risks.”

The playground has a few grassy hills mixed in with its interactive, often science-themed activities. Gill says that’s a good thing, and playgrounds should never be flat.

“A lot of times, adults think that play equals playground, but children don’t see it like that,” he said. “Children will find fun in just a single slope or a boulder.”

Gill also thinks the tower, which parents were nervously watching from the ground, is one of the reasons the Brainasium will allow kids to grow.

“Kids love that thrill,” he said.

Elisha Assaf, 12, seems to agree. She says she was too afraid to go down the several-storey-high slide when she first came, but eventually gave it a try.

“It’s so fun,” she said with a wide smile.

Assaf’s mother, Catherine Stack, said her family was part of a group from Golden, B.C., that came to visit Telus Spark.

“I can barely get them to leave,” she said, laughing as Elisha and her younger brother Alec climbed on a web of ropes nearby.

It was late afternoon, and the science centre was beginning to close. Families began making their way out, but one girl remained on the highest level of the rope tower, despite the adults telling her it was time to go.

“But why?” the girl called back as she reluctantly started the journey down. “I’d never been so high before.”

emcintosh@calgaryherald.com

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