Putting The Danger Back In Playgrounds

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So I don’t know what exactly happened in the last twenty years, but coinciding with the mistaken belief that an overabundance of urban planning can bring the entire human race to another level of consciousness, officious busybodies and sleazy trial lawyers started to suck the fun out of playgrounds. The rusty and dangerous — and by dangerous, I mean dangerously fun! — swing sets, monkey bars and merry go rounds, were all replaced with brightly colored objects no more than three feet high and placed atop rubber padded surfaces softer than a good many hotel beds I’ve had the misfortune of experiencing. Some people refer to these sad facsimiles as “playgrounds,” but I always knew better. Today’s New York Times finally asks the question “Can a Playground Be Too Safe?” Not surprisingly, the answer is yes:

By gradually exposing themselves to more and more dangers on the playground, children are using the same habituation techniques developed by therapists to help adults conquer phobias, according to Dr. Sandseter and a fellow psychologist, Leif Kennair, of the Norwegian University for Science and Technology.

“Risky play mirrors effective cognitive behavioral therapy of anxiety,” they write in the journal Evolutionary Psychology, concluding that this “anti-phobic effect” helps explain the evolution of children’s fondness for thrill-seeking. While a youthful zest for exploring heights might not seem adaptive — why would natural selection favor children who risk death before they have a chance to reproduce? — the dangers seemed to be outweighed by the benefits of conquering fear and developing a sense of mastery.

“Paradoxically,” the psychologists 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.”

What’s more, the article explains that there is no clear evidence that playground safety measures have lowered the average risk on playgrounds. A professor of risk management notes that the risk of some injuries, like long fractures of the arm, actually increased after the introduction of softer surfaces on playgrounds in Britain and Australia.

The article goes on to explain that if playground equipment isn’t high enough or fast enough, kids can get bored and are less likely to progressively develop the ability to deal with risk — something that playgrounds have traditionally facilitated. My husband broke his arm jumping out of a swing when he was young child, so I asked him why the idea that he would keep his kids off a swing set is abhorrent to him. And it’s not just because he wants our children to learn how to take physical risks, it’s because to keep our kids away from swings and other forms risky play would deprive them of fun. A few minor injuries — or, heck, even a broken bone or two — is a small price to pay for both good childhood development and giving your kids the chance to know what it’s like to really feel alive.

My own children are covered in bruises and scabs right now. But they also have great stories about their explorations and new heights. Sure, it does make my heart skip a beat every time they do, well, anything — but I know it’s for their own development that they learn about risk and how to manage it.

Check out some awesome photographs of vintage American playgrounds here.