Are Playgrounds Too Safe?

July 27th, 2011 by Andrea Bennett

Researchers contend that “boring” playgrounds are making kids risk averse.

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The Responsibility Project

A New York Times article about the possible long-term perils of super-safe playgrounds has people questioning their intuition – is playing too safely actually harming a generation of kids?

In a study published in the journal Evolutionary Psychology, psychologists Ellen Sandseter (of Norway’s Queen Maud University) and Leif Kennair (of the Norwegian University for Science and Technology) write that “risky play” among young children is necessary to help them learn to master their environments. In fact, by gradually exposing themselves to more and more dangers on the playground, children are using the same techniques therapists use to help adults conquer phobias. The pair contends that society’s quest to protect children has only stunted their ability to fend for themselves.

The “anti-phobic effect” of taking risks at play – such as climbing to new heights, experiencing high speeds or roughhousing – helps explain the evolution of children’s fondness for thrill-seeking, the psychologists explained in the report. “Paradoxically,” Sandseter and Kennair write, “we posit that our fear of children being harmed by mostly harmless injuries may result in more fearful children and increased levels of psychopathology.”

In fact, it’s tedium that appears to have Sandseter running scared. As she told the Times, “Climbing equipment needs to be high enough, or else it will be too boring in the long run.” While some worry that a child who suffered a bad fall would develop a fear of heights, the psychologists say the opposite is true: 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.

Fear of litigation is at least one motivation behind keeping playgrounds on the boring side, says Gizmodo’s Mat Honan. “We live in a world made over by lawyers and insurance contracts. And it’s killing us.” He calls out the world’s ever-softening playground surfaces, lowering monkey bars and flattening slides as symptoms of a larger epidemic. “We are all so terribly timid and afraid that something bad may happen…Always wear your helmet and a long-sleeved shirt. Avoid fear. Avoid challenges.”

The most infuriating thing about “all this coddling,” he says, is that it doesn’t even work. David Ball, a professor of risk management at Middlesex University in London, told the Times that the risk of some injuries, like arm fractures, actually increased after the introduction of softer surfaces on playgrounds in Britain and Australia.

Still, not everyone agrees that the safety measures are totally destructive. New York parks commissioner Adrian Benepe told Tierney that while he misses the Tarzan ropes, the litigation rate has since declined. “I suspect that parents who have to deal with concussions and broken arms wouldn’t agree that playgrounds have become too safe.” The enclosed platforms playground designers came up with in the 1980s and 1990s may have been an overreaction, he said, but lately there have been more creative alternatives.

The solution to the problem of not turning kids into delicate emotional blossoms, all the while keeping them largely concussion-free, may be in such new alternatives. The athletic trade publication Athletic Business suggests, “Equipment heights that encourage self discovery coupled with surfacing that mitigates injury risk represent the best of both worlds.”

Would you go back to the knee-scraping asphalt and sky-high monkey bars of your youth to ward off the threat of boredom (and generations of increasing risk averseness) or make playgrounds as safe as possible to try and keep kids’ limbs intact?