We're Building the Wrong Kind of Playgrounds

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CC BY 2.0. Greg Goebel – This play structure is... so exciting! (said nobody ever)

Forget the see-through static structures. Kids need to build, climb, wrestle, and disappear.

Vox has released a great video about playgrounds and why we're building them all wrong these days. The quest for safety has resulted in sterile play spaces that are almost as boring for kids to play in as they are for adults to supervise. As risk has been removed, so has the fun and, more importantly, the opportunity for kids to learn actual life skills.

The Vox video (below) explains a bit of the history of playground design, and how the concept of 'junk playgrounds' originated in Copenhagen. In the post-World War Two years, Marjory Allen, a British landscape architect and children's welfare advocate, visited the city and was amazed by the boost in self-confidence that the children using these playgrounds exhibited. She brought the concept back to England, renamed it the 'adventure playground', and soon it spread to other cities around Europe and North America.

Unfortunately the concept didn't stick in the U.S. The preoccupation with safety, paired with a litigious culture and the high cost of health care, has led to progressively more sanitized design, which Allen once described as "an administrator's heaven and a child's hell." The result is the slide-bridge-peaked roof combo that you can spot in pretty much every schoolyard and park around the U.S. (Yawn.)

But change is in the air. Adventure playgrounds are slowly but surely making a comeback, and wherever they do, kids flourish. These adventure play spaces are defined by three features:

1) A separation of space between kids and parents, to give the kids a sense of discovering things on their own

2) Loose parts with which to build things that the kids themselves design

3) Elements of risk, which are different from hazards. These include heights, tools, speed, danger, rough-and-tumble play, and the ability to disappear or get lost.

CC BY 2.0. Teddy Cross

Teddy Cross/CC BY 2.0

There's a line in the video that really resonated with me: "Kids respond well to being treated seriously." Lenore Skenazy of the Free Range Kids blog put this beautifully when she said we need to "stop treating kids like delicate morons." Indeed, if we stopped thinking so much about how we, as adult spectators, might feel, and more about how the kids feel when they're at play, we'd start advocating for more interesting, stimulating spaces. The end result is beneficial:

"If [kids] are presented with risky items with a serious functional purpose, they'll respond cautiously and conduct more experimentation. But if presented with overly safe static space they often wind up seeking dangerous thrills that the built-in environmental fails to provide."

Kids who play in adventure playgrounds have fewer injuries, are more physically active, have greater self-esteem, and are better at assessing risk. It's time to rethink how we let kids play and realize that, by loosening up on safety precautions early on, we are preparing them better for the future.