Finally, Parents Are Putting the Fun Back Into Playgrounds

CC BY 2.0. Michael Coghlan -- A fun playground in South Australia

After years of bubble-wrapping, support for riskier play is gaining momentum.

There are only so many times a kid can go down a slide and find it thrilling. By the fifth trip down, the novelty has usually worn off and the kid wanders away to find something else to do. This often involves pestering a parent to come play. As a mother of young children, I find this irritating, since the whole point of visiting a playground is for kids to be entertained (and me to read my book). Instead, they're often left bored and under-stimulated.

The problem, I've come to believe, lies more in inadequate playground design than any sort of inability on the part of kids to amuse themselves. The vast majority of playgrounds are mind-numbingly boring, with all-stationary parts and the same basic slides, monkey bars, and ramps. Even swings are getting rarer, and good luck finding a teeter-totter or one of those truly ancient relics, a merry-go-round! It's no wonder kids lose interest rapidly. There's no speed, no thrill, no edginess.

boring playground

Greg Goebel -- Just like every other one in the U.S. It's so boring, it hurts./CC BY 2.0

An article in CityLab suggests that change is in the air. Parents are realizing that riskier play is actually good for kids. From India to Taiwan to Canada to the United Kingdom, groups of parents are fighting back against their municipalities' obsession with 'safety at all costs' and insisting that kids have the right to interesting, engaging play spaces. The shift in thought is backed by science (and probably a whole lot of parental intuition, as well).

Research into psychological and physical development has shown that risky play helps kids to develop decision-making and gross motor skills that are important for adulthood. Super-safe playgrounds might even lead to more injuries, as Reilly Wilson, director of an adventure playground in New York City, has explained. "Knowing that they’re in a high-risk environment makes kids pay more attention, whereas super sanitized environments may have the opposite effect."

Over the past 14 years, hospital visits attributed to playground accidents have remained steady (around 60,000 globally), seemingly unaffected by the spate of safety-proofing. Playgrounds in general cause far fewer injuries than other activities. A white paper written by London-based author Tim Gill states that the relative risk of injury from playing rugby is 50 times more than playing in a playground, and skating/hockey accidents are responsible for ten times more hospital visits for concussions than playgrounds.

Riskier playgrounds make parents' jobs easier, too. More people visit, giving a child plenty of options for playmates and taking the burden off the parent to keep the kid entertained. It also tires them out, potentially making bedtime easier!

"These types of [adventure] playgrounds had 53 percent more visitors than America’s cookie-cutter ones, and children are up to 18 percent more physically active. They were also cheaper and safer."

Litigation occurs less frequently than one might suppose based on the priority municipalities give it. Gill found that New York City only paid 0.4 percent of its total liability payments over a 9-year period, and actual litigation incidents are extremely rare in Canada and Europe.

I love what Tim Gill says about designing better play spaces for kids:

"The take-home message for municipalities is: Stop setting your bar at the level of the most anxious parent. If you do that, you’re guaranteed to produce boring and dull playgrounds. If you set your bar at the level of the average parent or maybe even at the level of the parents who do want some more excitement and challenge in their kids’ lives, then things start to look different."

Gill's suggestion is a breath of fresh air in our safety-stifled society. I agree with him that the average parent is quite content to let their kid play rough, but I suspect they often appear more helicopter-ish at a conventional playground because they're worried about the wild things their kid might do in an attempt at entertainment or out of boredom. I know I do. The more engaging the playground, the calmer and more intently children play because they're working on a project, as opposed to tearing around in frustrated circles.

I hope this is just the beginning of a new era of play for children. As long as the streets remain too dangerous due to cars and urban dwellers are increasingly removed from wilderness areas, then building adventure playgrounds is the very least we can do for the next generation.