Britain Embraces Riskier Playgrounds

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After decades of obsessive safety-proofing, adults are finally realizing that a bit of danger is a good thing for kids.

My kids' favorite playground is tiny. It is squeezed up against a brick wall and enclosed on three sides by a chainlink fence, with a slide in one corner and a pine tree in the other. It doesn't look like much but they love it because it's full of loose parts. Old tires litter the ground, begging to be piled, climbed into, or rolled around. There is a bin full of lumber pieces, perfect for building roads and having fake sword fights, as well as sheets of plywood for making precarious drawbridges between stacks of tires.

The kids will play happily for an hour in this place, with plenty of yelling and crashing (and sometimes a few tears), but when we visit a typical playground elsewhere, with nothing but a fixed play structure, their interest wanes quickly and they want to go home. I've often thought that these playgrounds could be improved significantly if only they had a few more loose elements, but alas, we rarely encounter these.

Fortunately, Britain is starting to move in this direction. The New York Times reported this past weekend that educators, playground designers, and parents are realizing that bubble-wrapping kids at play does little to benefit them in the long run, and that investing in "riskier" play spaces is a smart move. These adults are standing up to the litigious, protective culture that has shaped playground design over the past 40 years and demanding that play be made slightly more dangerous for the children's own good.

One such example is Tumbling Bay, a playground built in 2014 for $1.5 million at Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. It sounds like heaven to my parental ears, complete with spiky gorse bushes that the manager says kids will only touch once.

"Aspects of Tumbling Bay, with its tall tree houses and wobbly bridges, would make an American park manager blanch. Its 20-foot climbing towers, with natural, gnarled boughs lashed together with willow wands, were made by hand, not in a factory (which would share legal liability in case of an accident). Waving prairie grasses stand higher than the head of an adult (which could block sight lines.) There are expanses of sand (could contain animal feces or sharp objects) and boulders (no manufacturer, no shared legal liability.)"
"Inspections will creep into being a bit more risk-averse unless we explicitly train them to get a more sophisticated understanding of the balance between benefits and risk, and stand back, and say 'It’s O.K. to have some risk of children falling over and bashing into things.' That’s not the same as being reckless and sending a 2-year-old to walk on the edge of a 200-foot cliff unaccompanied."

It is refreshing to hear Spielman make that differentiation, as it's not made often enough. I've heard the most ridiculous things at my kids' schools, including not being allowed to make snow angels because "someone might step on you." (I heard this from a student and it is unverified by school officials.) Take a look at Lenore Skenazy's humorous blog, Free Range Kids, for numerous examples of the stunningly ridiculous excuses adults make in the name of keeping kids safe.

What's unfortunate is that a trend toward riskier play is unlikely to catch on in the United States, as long as the country lacks socialized health care. When parents have to bear the burden of paying for hospital visits due to playground injuries, they're more inclined "find someone to blame to cover the cost of medical care, unlike their counterparts in European countries [where] 'the society has already paid for it'." And so, in the interest of keeping lawsuits to a minimum, U.S. playgrounds designers will probably continue to make their structures as boringly safe as possible.

Still, we can celebrate changes elsewhere and hope that, over time, seeing the creative, resilient, and adventurous children that result from riskier playgrounds will outweigh the risks associated with them. Plus, there's the added bonus of parents not being painfully bored while waiting for their children to finish playing. When we go to the tiny loose-parts yard, I can take my book and settle in a corner, knowing my kids will be happily and independently entertained for as long as I want to read. Isn't that what every parent wants?