Have playgrounds become too safe for kids?

Playgrounds these days are usually brightly colored things, low-slung plastic-coated structures with short, gently sloping slides, set on surfaces covered with shredded rubber or wood chips. No see-saws. No hand-pulled twirling whirling rides. No super-high jungle gyms to climb. Swings (if there are any) often have safety bars and seat belts attached.

But that wasn't the case just a generation ago.

"I am still quite nostalgic for the two-, three-, maybe three-and-a-half-story high wooden playground castles I grew up with 30-odd years ago," says Alex Gilliam, an architect and a national expert on K-12 design education. "We're now at a point where every playground is pretty much the same. And they're boring. They're not challenging."

Blame a litigious society. Or, maybe, helicopter parents. But the increased focus on safety may have had unintended consequences: a generation of kids who aren't able to accurately assess risk or cope with fear.

Have playgrounds become too safe?

"Children need to encounter risks and overcome fears on the playground," Dr. Ellen Sandseter, a professor at Queen Maud University in Norway, told the New York Times. "Children approach thrills and risks in a progressive manner, and very few children would try to climb to the highest point for the first time they climb. The best thing is to let children encounter these challenges from an early age, and they will then progressively learn to master them through their play over the years."

In a small 2007 study in Europe, Sandseter observed six different types of "risky play": playing on high structures or at high speeds, using dangerous tools or playing near dangerous elements, roughhousing, and games where the children can "get lost," "disappear," or avoid adult supervision. But instead of allowing children to explore their environment and understand how to interact with it, schools and public officials have been working to eliminate even the smallest risks.

In 2006, some cities and schools banned tag during recess, citing safety concerns; others have outlawed contact sports like touch football and soccer. Dodge ball has been out for years. And in 2005, South Florida's Broward County school system banned all running on playgrounds. Swings and see-saws were banned there, too. "They've got moving parts," Safety Director Jerry Graziose told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. "Moving parts on equipment is the number one cause of injury on the playgrounds."

Actually, according to the National Program for Playground Safety, the number one cause of injury on public, school, and home playgrounds is falling off of equipment. Even so, the vast majority of those injuries-85 percent-aren't classified as severe.

Moreover, while many parents worry that a bad fall could lead to a life-long fear of heights, the New York Times points out that the opposite is actually the case: Studies have shown that "a child who's hurt in a fall before the age of 9 is less likely as a teenager to have a fear of heights."

"Paradoxically, we posit that our fear of children being harmed by mostly harmless injuries may result in more fearful children and increased levels of psychopathology," Sandseter and her colleague, psychologist Leif Kennair of the Norwegian University for Science and Technology, write in the journal Evolutionary Psychology.

Gilliam sums it up this way: "The whole notion of protecting kids has kind of backfired."

As the founder and director of Public Workshop, an organization that encourages kids to take part in designing the cities in which they live, Gilliam has been involved in the research and creation of plenty of different kinds of play spaces. Modern "safe" playgrounds aren't interesting enough for older kids, he points out. That leads to an increase in sedentary activity, which has been linked to the spike in childhood obesity rates.

"We carp, as adults, all the time that we've lost our kids to video games, we've lost our kids to TV," says Gilliam. "Of course we have. We've made the world, the physical landscape, so boring to kids that of course a video game is going to feel more stimulating."

But there may be hope. "We're at a weird tipping point," Gilliam says. On one hand, the way we worry about the risks associated with play are "a little depressing at times," he says. But on the other hand, it may allow us to reassess the way kids really need to play. Just as so-called free-range parents made others think about the way we foster independence, when it comes to super-safe and boring playgrounds, Gilliam says, "Some people are finally starting to say, 'Maybe enough's enough'."

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