A very small study from Texas has an important lesson for injury-phobic adults who are always yelling at kids to be careful.
There is something about adventure playgrounds that alarms adults. Whether it's their messiness, their heaps of boards, tires, and ropes, or the wild games they inspire in every child, adults tend to assume that kids are going to injured playing on something that looks more like a junkyard than a normal, fixed playground.
Two educators from Houston, Texas, decided to find out if this is really the case, if children are more likely to get injured on an adventure playground than on a regular one. The result is a very small study, conducted at the Parish School in Houston over the course of five years, that has a valuable lesson at its core.
The Parish School has the unusual benefit of having both kinds of playgrounds on its premises. A fixed playground, featuring a ramp, several slides, swings with rubber seats, and soft mulch on the ground, is what the elementary-aged children use during recess. The after-school program takes place in an adventure playground (AP), described as follows:
"The three acre site is filled with reclaimed lumber and large objects, which include grocery store shopping carts, municipal drainage culverts, buckets of paint and stacks of loose tires. Most materials are clustered at the center, around a covered hardtop. There is also a large sandpile, with hosepipes and sinks nearby... Hammers, saws, buckets of paint and plastic ducks are carried freely around the landscape."
The study tracked the total number of injuries that occurred between 2010 and 2015 on both playgrounds that required external care, i.e. a visit to the emergency department or for X-rays. There were 10 such injuries in this time period, which ranged from a split eyelid needing stitches and crushed finger to fractured arms and a rock in an ear. Five incidents occurred on the regular playground, and three on the AP. (Several could not be included because they happened outside of supervised hours.)
Using this information, as well as the number of children using the sites and the number of hours the sites were used, the researchers were able to calculate the injury risk, which is "the statistical likelihood of any one child being seriously injured in any given hour spent on site." They found that the AP was 4.3 times safer than the regular playground.
Put into the context of risk theorist David Ball's chart of comparative risks (view here): "The environment which adults frequently describe as 'risky' or dangerous is, in fact, slightly safer than golf. Both sites are safer, on average, than simply being at home."
The researchers attribute the adventure playground's relative safety to the fact that the children are intimately involved in its construction.
"Their continual re-design and alteration of the equipment allows them to increase their levels of risk slowly and incrementally as they grow. Of three ladder-related injuries, two occurred on the adult-designed equipment and one on AP, where a fort ladder had been changed without the climber’s knowledge. Another child had fallen from the only adult-built structure on AP."
Curious but frustrating is how surprised adults are to learn that the AP is as safe as it is. Injuries in other locations, such as classrooms and hallways, tend to be accepted as normal, whereas anything happening on the AP requires detailed explanation. The researchers wrote in their conclusion,
"There is a common perception that adventure playgrounds are unregulated, unsupervised places where injuries happen often. When injuries have occurred there, AP staff were required to provide full explanations and justifications for their approach. Injuries during the school day were framed as freak accidents, and no one has suggested removing the bathroom doors or ceasing the use of wagons."
While this study is very, very small, it offers an important reminder that what we perceive to be dangerous for children often is not; and that changing our adult perspectives on where and how kids play could be quite beneficial to them. Children need adventure playgrounds and free play more than ever these days, and we adults should be more worried about the fixed play sets than a heap of old boards.